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Zen and the Art of Jumper Maintenance

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"...and seriously, why do you always have to park so far away?" Rodney concludes, seventeen minutes and forty-three seconds after John had asked him whether he was picking up any more energy readings.

Rodney has yet to acknowledge the question, so John figures the answer is no. He rolls his eyes and smiles a little. Rodney isn't even looking at him, eyes glued to the scanner he's holding in his right hand, punching away happily with his left so the gesture is futile, but John finds he can't quite help it.

They've been tramping through the forest for a good part of the last two hours, and so by now they've all heard the details of how Rodney is hungry, there are bound to be mosquitoes here and, oh, they might die of attack by tiger or blow-dart wielding natives anytime now.

John doesn't point out that the jumper's scanner didn't pick up any life signs at all, so that they're probably quite safe. He enjoys hearing Rodney go off like this. Secretly he agrees with him about the distance though, the ridge seemed quite a bit closer from where they parked the jumper, and it's very hot. The air is clammy, the vegetation bright and lush around them, the forest just dense enough to be uncomfortable.

Ronon is up front, hacking plants out of the way with a machete one of the biologists gave him. He's creating a path they can walk on, even though there's still the climbing over fallen trees and avoiding spider webs (and oh, there's a memory John really doesn't want to get into). He's seen Ronon look warily at the webs as well. He wonders if he's encountered one of the wraith-bugs before or if he's just apprehensive about what walking into one of those might do to his hair.

Teyla is holding up the rear. She smiles when he looks at her, but her cheeks are flushed and what's visible of her dark skin is glistening with sweat.

They're looking for an energy spike. In fact, they have been looking for this elusive energy spike ever since they picked it up in the nice, cool jumper which seems like a lifetime ago. It was Rodney who had argued (enthusiastically) for the need to check it out, and who now is muttering "getting closer, closer, closer" under his breath. John seriously doubts this is anything less than a full discovery high for him and therefore is halfway into letting out another half-serious, half-teasing remark when Rodney starts pointing, shouting "here!" and attacking greenery.

Ronon steps up to help him, ripping off vines with a solemn kind of pleasure that suggests he doesn't like the suckers that much either. John sees a complete vine of what looks like ivy getting tangled in Ronon's dreads, giving him a bit of a hippie-like appearance. Or well, at least from the back. He decides not to mention it.

Teyla walks up silently beside him, drawing her weapon.

Ronon pulls the last of the plants aside and John can hear him saying "Looks like a door." while Rodney snaps back with "Yes, it is remarkably door-like!" and more ruffling of vines.

John waits a moment and then steps up in between both of them because one, doors never mean anything good and two, as soon as Ronon figures out there are plants stuck in his hair he's going to be a rumbling mess. And really, the walk back to the jumper is going to be bad enough as it is.

It turns out not to be as much as a door as just a cave entrance, and John is about to check it out when Rodney stops him with a "Whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa. There's something there." and a lot of hand-motions that John has learned to interpret as "sudden death", or maybe "give me that cupcake, NOW", which really aren't that different when you think about it.

He likes this doorway though. It looks normal enough, and it's also the only way to get past the mountain ridge, especially because trekking around it is going to be a no-go in this climate.

"It's some kind of an energy barrier around the threshold," Rodney announces, still bent over his scanner. And John thinks 'cool!' because really, if someone goes through the trouble of installing an energy barrier at all it means that whatever is on the other side is totally worth knowing.

So Rodney takes a step back and John goes with the pebble-test (aptly named and first described by Ford, since then written into the Atlantis Military Manual under 'approaching: glowy fields, things that shouldn't be invisible but are, animals/people that simmer'). The pebble touches the barrier, makes it shine a pretty blue and disappears. He's betting it's a cloaking device, and he can see the same thought in Rodney, who is bouncing at this point, Teyla, who takes a step back and scans the sky quickly, and Ronon, who grabs his gun and points it, ready to shoot his way in. Or at anyone who comes out. Or anything that moves. He's ready to shoot either way, and John feels slightly comforted by that thought.

Whatever it hides, it's bound to be Ancient, so it'll either be the best thing ever (a laser gun!) or a crazy, crazy thing that they're going to wish they never found at all. He knows Rodney agrees, and they share a look. (When they had been in Atlantis for two days they had tried to imagine the weirdest things the Ancients would ever have invented. They gave up on that game and moved on to prime/not prime three weeks later, because whatever limit there was to their fantasy? The Ancients had it not so much. Crazy bastards.)

Rodney starts rummaging in his backpack, making "gimme!" motions, demanding tape and a branch, and respect for his utter genius. Although the last might just have been implied, John isn't sure. It's Teyla who gets the small, bendy looking branch, and Rodney duct tapes a camera to it.

John suddenly gets what he's trying to do and says "It's MALP on a stick!" while grinning. Rodney just glowers (which means he secretly likes it, they all know) and crouches in front of the doorway.

As soon as the stick-'n-camera goes through the field it glows blue again, and Rodney makes a small sound, much like "huh" before the branch seems to be pulled forward into the field. Rodney momentarily loses his balance, his fingers touching the part where the branch disappears into nothing and John knows it's a bad idea the second before Rodney starts yelling "Oh no! No no no no no!"

Teyla calmly starts instructing him to let go and Ronon wants to fire on it and by then both of Rodney's arms have disappeared. John lunges to try and grab his shoulders but he underestimates the pull of the field, loses his grip and in a flash of blue Rodney is gone.

It's oddly silent for a fraction of a second, all of them staring at the doorway, maybe expecting Rodney to step through again, or at least yell from the other side. Except he doesn't.

It's Teyla who activates her radio and says "Rodney, this is Teyla, please respond" and John spares a moment to be glad of her because he's so used to Rodney talking into his ear day and night he probably wouldn't have thought to radio him. Going against anything he had learned in basic training, but Rodney is so far away from basic training he usually doesn't even... John takes a breath, and tries to get his hands under control (they're shaking, probably something to do with the fact he had let Rodney go). He still feels the fabric of Rodney's jacket slipping away between his fingers.

He scans Teyla's face while they're waiting for a response. Her voice is a little uneven when she tries again. "Rodney, if you can hear me, please respond!"

John curses, because god knows what Rodney is getting himself into. He's alone, and they couldn't hold him back, they can't help him, there could be anything there, he could be lying there unconscious for all they know... As the scenarios that are building up in his mind go from bad to worse, from 'likely' to 'less likely' to 'only in Pegasus' he has to clench his jaw not to yell for Rodney (he knows it won't make a difference).

It's Ronon who's talking on the radio now, "McKay? Are ya there? If you're dead, say something, Sheppard is freaking out here."

John shoots him a disapproving look, although he knows it's pretty much the truth; his hands are shaking alarmingly now. Teyla would normally say something about how it is normal to worry for a teammate who has just gone through an invisible barrier, but she's busy looking at some writing on a stone right next to the entrance.

John suddenly has a moment of brilliance, steps really close to the portal (but takes care not to touch it) and thinks "off" quite sternly at it. Then "let Rodney out!" It doesn't work and he's stuck thinking of any other commands that might do it when Teyla says, "I'm not fluent in Ancient, but I believe this says 'Welcome'".

She points "and this symbol symbolises 'Ascension', or to evolve to a higher plane of existence." She's looking at the symbols, running her fingers over them, looking for a mechanism, a trigger. Finally she turns and says "Maybe we could radio Elizabeth to help us translate this text? It might have instructions on how to get Rodney back."

"Or we can get Zelenka, to figure this door thing out," Ronon says, gesturing at the portal.

John takes a moment. His current plan was along the lines of 'get in there before he kills himself', so yes, he thinks those are good suggestions. "Good idea. If I'm not back in five minutes, do all that." He raises his P-90. "I'm going after him."

Ronon doesn't disagree, although John knows he probably wants to go himself. The muzzle of his P-90 makes blue waves in the surface when he waves it through the barrier. He can feel the pull right away, and his first instinct is to pull away, but he forces himself to relax.

He shares a last look with Teyla, and she says "be careful, John."

Then he steps through.



The pain is bad, but not unbearable. It feels like his entire body is compressed somehow until he's suddenly lying on the other side, facedown in the dirt. It's a stinging pain in his legs, making them twitch, and his back, making his spine ache, but Rodney is there, his boots suddenly appearing in his line of sight, comfortingly black between the dots that are skimming his vision.

John feels a clumsy hand petting his shoulder before he realises Rodney is talking. "It gets better, really, just lie there a bit" and "hungry, so very hungry" and he zones out for a couple seconds more, listening to the creaking of plastic when Rodney opens the power bar liberated from John's backpack. The feeling fades away slowly, leaving nothing behind but a strange dull headache, and he lifts his head.

Rodney looks like hell. He's still babbling away through large chunks of power bar, things like "thought you'd never come" and "seriously, you didn't consider leaving me here, did you?" but mainly John is transfixed by the smear of dirt on his left cheek. There are vague circles under Rodney's eyes and the shadowy beginnings of a dark beard on his cheeks. He doesn't remember Rodney looking like that, especially since he'd seen him just minutes ago in bright sunlight.

"This cave light does nothing for your complexion," John says while slowly sitting up and Rodney's off again, mumbling "you don't leave someone in the field and whether you like it or not I actually am one of your team..." That gets John's attention. "I didn't leave you Rodney, I came after you." he says, taking in the camera attached to the oily black barrier, the many footprints in the dirt undoubtedly made by pacing feet, the discarded power bar wrappers and scribbled on papers.

"Yeah, after two days!" Rodney huffs and John notes that he seems genuinely upset, but hidden underneath that is a huge amount of both worry and relief, and okay, "two days?" he echoes, thinking that maybe he should be checking Rodney for head wounds because yes, his hair is standing up in tuffs and he's looking unstable somehow, and when Rodney advances on him John actually leans back.

Rodney is just snapping his fingers though "your watch, give it to me!" and when he does Rodney goes to sit down with it, uttering little "huh" sounds and then suddenly looking very, very alarmed.

"Rodney?" John sighs and stiffly stands up. "Look, we should look for a way out of here..." But Rodney interrupts him, "How long has it been for you?" At his questioning look he says "How many minutes? How long after me did you step through the doorway?"

John thinks on it because between all the freaking out he hadn't really been keeping track, so he says "I don't know, five maybe, maximum ten?"

"Oh no." Rodney looks grave now, and John can't help but feel a little chill pass his spine when he does. When he continues on he looks even worse, an expression that usually accompanies "if we don't find a ZPM" or "if the shields fail" and oh, John knows that look. He hates it.

Rodney is holding both John's watch and his own up, waving them in the air when he gestures, "Your five minutes? Two days for me."

"Wait... what?" he asks.

"You're wondering why that just hurt? It's because time is passing faster here than it is on the other side and your body was being ripped apart by the tidal forces of the temporal differential. We're in a time dilation field. And it means... well, it means a lot of things actually, but what it does for us..."

John interrupts the flow of words before they get to the scenarios of doom and says, "Okay, you're sure we can't just...?" He motions towards the black barrier.

"No." Rodney shakes his head. "I tried to send a message, I eh, taped myself, I assume you didn't get it oh, some time yesterday?" He looks hopeful for a second, and John almost regrets having to say "No, we didn't see anything."

"Well, we can't step back through, so stop thinking about it." (John had been thinking just that.) "I can't get anything to go back through, I don't know how to turn it off and this should not be happening because one, why? Why would anyone make a time dilation field one cannot get out of? And two, did it have to be in a cave without any food and water because yes, starving to death is so much for fun when doing it on extended time?"

"...You've really been here for two days?" John says.

"Well, forty-two hours and thirty-five minutes if you want to be exact, but that's not the point, the point is..." Rodney looks up, "we're stuck."



It grows dark around them as Rodney talks about temporal compression theory, hands just vague white shapes moving through the air until even those aren't visible anymore. John sits with his back to a rock wall, looks at where Rodney's hands should be and listens to his tone more than his words. Rodney is still comforting, even though he sounds very different from a couple hours before. John finds himself missing the sun-filled jungle.

Rodney hasn't slept in two days and claims he isn't going to do so now either. John believes him, but he can tell he's winding down now, more whispering than anything else. His boot bumps into John's, and stays there, almost hesitantly. John thinks he should move away, maybe, but he finds he doesn't mind. The darkness would be disturbing without it.



As soon as the gray morning light starts filtering into the cave they pack up everything they have. Their water supply is completely gone, as well as most of their food. In a last moment of inspiration John collects some rocks and makes an arrow, giving the others an idea of where they went.

Rodney says the only way out is through the other side of the cave, and so they follow the ridge until it spits them out onto the lower part of a mountain side. It's misty, and besides the distant snow-covered peaks and some trees below them they can't see much of anything. Small rocks scatter under their boots as they start to descend the slope, and it's almost unnaturally quiet.

Rodney looks even more awful like this, blue bruise-like bags under his eyes, and John watches him as they go down, looking for signs of trembling legs, anything. Rodney is clumsy and almost loses his balance a couple times but doesn't actually fall.

They leave signs as they go, arrows that point the way down. John is starting to think it might be useless, after all if Rodney is right about the time dilation thing they probably have a much better chance of getting out on their own than anyone else coming in after them, but he does it anyway. Rodney isn't always right, and in this case he really hopes he isn't because the thought of Ronon and Teyla still standing there, still counting down the five minutes for him to return before they even contact Atlantis... it's unreal.

John suspects Rodney for once wishes he isn't right either because he doesn't complain about the mountain side, or the mist, or the long walk down. In fact, he doesn't say much at all, just follows John's plan to 'walk towards the trees' without protest. Without a scanner to look for energy signatures they're pretty much lost, and John is surprised to find how much they depend on them in the field. None of them even carry compasses any more. Rodney had put his backpack down before he was sucked through, and John hadn't thought to bring anything more than what was already in his, thinking it would be easier, thinking they'd be out by now. So all the technology they have is the camera, which they left connected to the portal just in case Rodney's message did get through somehow.

When the ground levels the rocky soil starts to be replaced by long grass that's wet with dew. They're both pretty much beat already and they sink down to sit on some boulders. John hands Rodney the last of the power bars. Rodney's pants are already stained wet up to his knees and he shivers as he opens the wrapper. He doesn't look at him. Their voices have been echoing whenever they talk, and the landscape in itself is pretty eerie. John is trying very hard not to think of horror movies, and he can see Rodney's fingers unconsciously twitching for a computer. Or maybe just for coffee, John thinks, he must be seriously detoxing by now.

He wants to make a remark like "this reminds me of Lord of the Rings", but he's not entirely sure it's the right time and place. Rodney is closing his eyes even while finishing off the power bar with one huge bite, looking like he might fall asleep right on the boulder. John has seen him nap in stranger places (council meetings, jumper floors, lab tables), so he gets up and half-whispers "McKay? Let's go."

They dredge through another half-mile of long, wet grass before Rodney speaks up in an almost off-hand way. "You know, I almost shot myself in the leg."

"...What?" John asks.

"I tried throwing rocks at it, pushing things through, short-circuiting it, it didn't work so finally I thought, what would Sheppard do."

John grins, knowing perfectly well where this is going. "So you..."

"So I shot it," Rodney admits. It's only when John sees the flicker of humor in his eyes he realizes Rodney was trying to make him feel better.



Another hour out they end up in the forest, and John finds he's almost unnaturally relieved when they hear birds nesting, singing, ruffling along the branches. They're not actually alone on this world, wherever they are. He thinks he could kill a bird for food if they need to, and Rodney argues with him over which one.

Once they're through the trees its long grass again, but the flowers immersed among it start to open their petals and the sun finally starts to come through. He suspects it's going to be a warm day.

It's mid-morning when they hear it: a faint, rumbling sound that he probably wouldn't have picked up on if he hadn't been listening to Rodney breathe in between talking just then ("As long as we can find the power source that powers that barrier, I should be able to turn it off and then...").

It first reminds him of an earthquake, the sound almost too low to be heard, and the hairs on his arms stand up. As he hears it again it starts sounding more like a big animal, and okay, John doesn't like those either. Especially since that one scary dinosaur like creature on MX9-757. Or the land-octopus on Micrationa (that had tried to strangle him. Repeatedly). Or the swarm of tiny, sharp-toothed winged tigers on M74-324. To be fair, they had sounded more like a gang of angry kittens, but still, they had freaked him out.

Rodney is tactfully taking a couple steps back at this point (hiding behind him, covering his six, either one of those) and John raises his P-90. They can take this, John tells himself. They're used to this stuff. Even if usually they have both Ronon and Teyla with them and he spends a sharp, sullen moment longing for them. At least they're probably safe.

The roar comes again, louder but from the other direction, and either there are two of the things or it's the strange echo of this place. Rodney is sliding closer now, his arm almost brushing John's tac vest. He's not shaking, which John counts as a plus. John doesn't step away (Rodney has a death grip when he's convinced it's only John between himself and a ravenous animal), but instead he raises his voice: "Well, you're either gonna eat us, or we're gonna eat you!" Predictably, Rodney begins mumbling about crazy colonels baiting wild animals and instantly seems more relaxed.

John is aiming, getting ready to fire at the bushes, the sky, anything, when suddenly there's movement and okay, good thing the guy appearing from between the shaking plants is wearing bright orange or he would be dead by now. He looks out of breath, black, greasy hair, wide-eyed terror and flushed cheeks, and yes, John doesn't need to ask whether he's running from the... whatever, because the guy is yelling "Help! Help! Help me, please!"

John nods, yes, they got that, and tries to project cool as he hears the thing roar again slightly to the left from where he had been pointing his gun. Guy-in-orange points and yells "In the trees!"

John is considering firing a warning shot, unless there are more people where this one came from. He wants to ask, except the guy still seems to be in 'running for my life' mode and as John turns he scrambles to hide behind Rodney, who looks slightly confused at the turn of events. Great.

Rodney stage-whispers to the guy "So what...?" and his reply of "The Beast!" (with obligatory full-body shudder) makes Rodney grimace and John has to fight the urge to laugh. They've heard this so many times it's become funny. Well, except that one time on M12-875.

Rodney, always wanting to know, questions insistently though. "What kind of Beast? Are we talking Wraith-like? Mammal? Quadruped? Flying dinosaur? Does it suck your life out or just chew because personally I really prefer the latter..." and John interrupts easily (any Beast is bad Beast) "Alright, is there a safe place for us to hide from this?"

The guy is still shaking, staring into the woods (probably seeing the possibility of his own death somewhere beyond said trees) and replies absently "No, no, the Cloister is too far." John is about to ask "Cloister?" (Convent? Are there nuns? What?), when the roaring is suddenly way too close for comfort. He crouches down in the grass, feels Rodney do the same and between the two of them they drag the guy down as well.

John whispers "Stay down, stay behind me." What Rodney knows, but the new guy is sounding increasingly pessimistic with statements like "You can't fight it!" and "We will all be killed!" It's the eventual "It is upon us!" that makes John break out his 'confident and logical' voice, usually used on small children and scared botanists. "Yes, yes it is." He fires his P-90 ear-splittingly loud. "But we can scare it away."

Rodney joins in by firing his pistol a couple times. John is pretty sure Rodney is aiming more towards the clouds or maybe overhead birds than anything remotely Beast-like, but he appreciates it nonetheless. It makes him feel like he's not alone in this at least. Guy-in-orange on the other hand doesn't seem calmed by John's display of power, still whimpering loudly and John is pretty sure even Rodney is annoyed. If they're going to be eaten any second now, screaming won't help much (Rodney learned that one the hard way).

The guy starts touching something that looks like prayer beads, kissing them and bringing them towards his forehead repeatedly. Rodney frowns like he's about to tell him just how stupid he's being when suddenly from the right there's movement, trees are being crushed, birds flying up in flurry, and wow, the whatever-it-is is moving fast. Too fast to be an animal and too fast to decently aim at it as well. John gets to fire only once before it's right there and he's knocked over, flying through the air, landing with a grand oomph.

Rodney isn't doing much better but at least he's still standing; he's bodily protecting the other guy, firing his gun at random. The Beast flickers in and out of vision, moving too quickly and unpredictably for Rodney to do much at all but he's distracting it, and that's all John needs.

He rolls over, gets on his knees and sends a bullet through the thing in one fluid motion. He rolls again, scrambles up and starts running, firing except it doesn't seem to slow it down at all and, oh yes, this one is going on the list of freaky Beasts. Simmering invisibility powers combined with bullet-resistance. John sees a lot of bragging to Ronon in his future.

Since bullets don't seem to do much, he decides on plan B, his knife. He yells "Get outta here!" to Rodney (and yes, guy-in-orange can run too, but John figures he doesn't need to tell him that) and he jumps onto the Beast's back.

In retrospect, it would prove not to have been the best of plans. He's thrown off and flying through the air again (and ow, that's at least a broken rib or two) before he can even stab at the thing, let alone locate some big artery. He lands a couple feet from Rodney, who didn't run, of course he didn't. John hears him scream, and there's blood, not the Beast's but Rodney's and yes, that's about where he snaps a little.

He jumps, grabs onto the Beast again and stabs, again, again, again, trying to find its throat, trying to slice it, trying to hurt, trying to kill. The Beast is howling and John is pretty sure he's growling at this point as well. He doesn't feel any blood rush over his hands, but that doesn't mean he isn't hurting it, so he does it again, and again... There is a bout of dizziness, but he keeps on trying until he's suddenly on his belly. He sees a last flicker of orange billowing robes running towards the trees, and then the Beast is leaning over him. Sharp claws, burning pain, breath stopping in his throat. And then the world goes dark.



"...eyes, but yet..."

There's whispering into his ear.

" do not see."

It's soft and taunting, almost seductive, but childishly innocent.

"...a wanderer, with a hollow heart..."

There are more words, like a rhyme or a chant, but the other ones are too far away to hear, all he knows is their flow, sounds flooding past him like waves.

John is pretty sure he's dreaming. Past the words, the beauty, there's something dark like danger, leaving a bitter taste in his mouth, and he feels like he needs to wake, fight, defend himself. Only the rhythm keeps him under, only lets him fight off sleep slowly, so when he wakes he doesn't realise it until he feels a small hand splayed over his chest and something cold wiping his brow.

As he blinks open his eyes he looks right into the brown ones of a young girl. She tilts her head curiously. He grimaces at the strong light and says "Hi?" She studies him for a moment more, smiles, and then turns and yells "He's awake again!"

John flinches (holy pounding headache) and says in what he hopes is an adorably scruffy tone, "Well I am now!" The girl grins at him, and someone else appears into his field of vision. A woman with dark curls, who introduces herself with "I am Teer."

John says "hello" and looks past her, starts scanning the doorway, the window next to him, and as he asks "where is..." 'my friend, the other one with me' his eye falls on a mattress on the floor, just a couple feet away from him. Rodney is bundled under a bunch of blankets and appears to be sleeping, breathing evenly in and out.


"Ah, is that his name?" The girl asks, curiosity sparkling in her eyes "you yelled for him when you were not yet well". John frowns, not liking the sound of that, and tries to sit up, but the girl says "Don't worry, I healed him. And you as well."

"Then you won't mind if I check for myself, right?" John says, and promptly slides from the bed and sags to his knees.

The next time he wakes up Teer is holding his hand, playing with his fingers and looking at him almost dreamily. As soon as she notices he's awake she says "You should not get up yet, John, you were injured quite badly."

He decides not to answer that and looks for Rodney, but she's blocking most of his view. Seeing his irritation, she says "Avrid called for us. You were terribly injured from fighting the Beast. We had to carry you two almost halfway across the Sanctuary." And oh yes, John remembers the Beast. He also remembers feeling like he was dying, or at least pretty close to it. In fact, he feels remarkably alive for not being hooked up to a dozen or so IV's.

Deciding to start with the most obvious question, he asks "The girl, she healed us?" Teer nods. Okay, so he was sure Rodney had been bleeding. A lot. "She's a little young to be a doctor."

"Hedda is one of the few among us who possesses the healing power," Teer says calmly.

John doesn't quite know what to make of that, usually when some random villagers talk about healing powers they go along the lines of asking the gods for healing, chanting, walking around tarred with feathers, clucking like a chicken, that kind of thing. In this case, he's quite sure it involved something somewhat more literal. Deciding it doesn't quite matter, he says "Well, good. Thank you."

Teer smiles at him fondly "It's we who should thank you for saving our brother from the Beast!" And oh yes, the guy in orange. Avrid. John bites his lip, and tries to extract his hand from Teer's grasp without appearing impolite. She's holding on quite firmly and he looks away from their clasped hands, trying to catch a glimpse of Rodney.

"It's funny—I don't remember winning."



Another flash of brutal sunlight brings Avrid inside. He's carrying a wooden plate with food on it and flashes an extremely grateful expression. "It is good to see you awake and well again!"

John frowns. He was pretty sure the guy couldn't have outrun the Beast. In fact, he quite clearly remembers there being some probability of impending death. Having met the Beast up close and personal, John finds he pretty much agrees and decides not to hold the squealing like a girl against the man. Obviously, it is quite a scary Beast. "Didn't it come after you?"

"No. Only the Ascended know why." Avrid bows his head and fondles his beads again, smiling happily.

The Ascended. John has a brief flash of Chaya sitting by his bedside and wiping his brow, whispering in his ear and he feels slightly paranoid when he asks "None of them are around, are they?" He does vaguely remember monks in orange robes from Chaya's planet (truthfully, he wasn't looking at much else than her). It would be just his luck to run into her again. God, Rodney would kill him. But Avrid just holds out the plate and says "Are you hungry?"

He only has to see the food to realise he's absolutely starving. He sits up straighter, propping himself up on his elbows, and wow, he's wearing something distinctly home-spun. He lifts up the blanket to reveal brown linen trousers and feels a slight sense of alarm as he asks "Which one of you got me out of my clothes and into these?" He's not really sure who would be worse, Hedda, who looks like she's about ten, Teer, who's still smiling too much for comfort or Avrid, who looks just slightly too eager to have survived the day's events. He swallows, and tries not to think about being molested in his sleep. Who knows what these people consider to be 'healing'.

It's Teer who says "I did. Is that alright?" And yes, he might have known. Maybe that's why she's smiling at him like that, he thinks darkly. Deciding she does deserve some gratitude, he turns on the charm and says "Oh yeah. I just usually like to meet a woman before she sees me naked." Teer smiles openly and, oooh yes, is she ever flirting with him.

There's a faint snort from the floor. "You're lying Sheppard. You like nothing more than to let a woman see you naked."

John forgets about smiling at Teer and instead grins brightly. Rodney. Teer moves away from the bed, looking slightly offended, but he doesn't care.

Rodney is lying on his side, looking at him, looking not much worse for the wear, even grinning back, and John relaxes for the first time since they set foot through the portal. They're going to be fine.



They're declared completely healed by Teer the moment they start nagging about staying in bed any longer, which makes John think she's not had much experience with sick people. He supposes she wouldn't, not if they have a resident healing wiz kid, but still, Carson would never have fallen for that.

Besides a few stiff muscles he does feel fine and as soon the food was gone he'd seen Rodney throwing eager looks out the window as well.

As Rodney gets up John is glad to see he isn't the only one they stripped (honestly, did they need to remove his underwear? Really? And where are their shoes?) But while they'd outfitted him in beige and brown Rodney is stuck wearing a bright orange tunic very much like Avrid's, which is somehow just that much worse. To finish off the outfit Rodney gets open-toed sandals and there's even a necklace with flowers they both pretend very much not to notice. He looks like a very sour Buddhist monk. John wants to laugh, but the "I hate you. Hate this galaxy, but more specifically, you" expression on Rodney's face warns him against that.

John can imagine Rodney walking through the gate like that. It would crack Cadman up for sure. And ever since Zelenka installed the "come through the gate, instantly get your picture taken" system (for security purposes only, of course) there was no getting out of public humiliation. Even he had kept the picture of his team coming back from a trade mission decked out in straw hula-skirts as a desktop image for his computer for months. He had deleted it when Ford had gone missing though. Somehow, looking at his surprisingly hairless legs every single day had seemed disrespectful.

When they step out of their cabin, or hut, or whatever it is, Avrid is waiting for them right at the door, still disturbingly chipper. "I am glad you are feeling better!" They both mumble something in agreement, and he gestures towards the village. "Welcome to your new home!"

It looks just like every other village they have seen in the Pegasus galaxy. Not too shabby, but built with wood and dust none the less. The people are colorful, the buildings resemble more of a medieval farmers town. Sharing a moment of abject terror with Rodney, John tries to sound diplomatic. "Eh, Avrid. We're uh, very happy to visit. And grateful for the food and the whole healing thing." Rodney nods. "Very grateful about the healing thing."

"...But, uh, do you know the way out of here?"

Avrid grins, "There is no way to leave, John, other than to Ascend."

"Wait- what?" Rodney, of course, goes right past diplomatic into 'demanding answers' mode. "What exactly do you mean by "There is no way"? There has to be a way out somewhere, what- is it forbidden by the gods? Oh, it totally is, isn't it? They need you to do the Ascension thing first? Well that's just..." John interrupts him "Rodney!".

Avrid is looking wide-eyed between the both of them, but then seems to find the courage to answer. "That is the purpose of this place, yes—to meditate upon Ascension and one day join those who created the Sanctuary."

John sighs "Okay, the thing is, we've got other plans..." He lets his voice trail off there, but Avrid doesn't seem to pick up on what he's really saying. Namely, 'we want to get back to our people. Like, now.'

Avrid starts walking to what looks like a small fountain. With a shrug, they follow him, Rodney's robes billowing behind him as he hurries to catch up. The water mirrors their reflections back at them, and John wonders whether it's a portal to the other side and they'll have to jump through. It would almost make sense, somehow. Avrid stays silent for a while, and when he speaks he sounds slightly puzzled "If you not wish to be here, then why did you enter the portal?"

"Well it's not like I meant to! It sucked me in!" Rodney says, clearly still indignant about the whole ordeal. "And I... followed." John mumbles.

"Those that came before us made certain that there could be no indecision. Once you set foot within the Sanctuary, your path was chosen." Avrid says, getting slightly irritated. John can see him fingering the beads in his pocket.

"Well not by us!" Rodney says, eyes wide, motioning between John and himself. John finds himself in complete agreement. As soon as they can convince someone that hey, they really, really had not meant to come in, seriously, they hadn't, he figures they'll let them out. Somehow.

"Once you cross the threshold, you are committed to be here for the remainder of your days" Avrid says, and then smiles at them again. Rodney gives him a stare until his smile fades. In the end he says "I must go meditate" and slinks away. They both stare after him until he disappears into one of the buildings and then they're just standing there, staring at their reflections in the water.

After a moment, John says "You don't think...?" pointing at the water. Rodney raises his eyebrow for a second, considering it. He even looks a little defeated when he says "No. It wouldn't."



There are a handful of people dressed in various orange and pink hues walking around, some looking at them curiously, others just going about their business, hauling buckets of water, cooking. John can see a woman sitting behind a wooden spinning wheel. A little further on Teer seems to be weaving something on a loom, and someone else is patiently making garlands from colorful, freshly picked flowers. Rodney points out what seems to be the blacksmith and together they go investigate whether the guy knows about swords because well, that would be cool and John has yet to get Ronon a "welcome to the team" present.

When they ask and the blacksmith in fact has no idea what a sword is ("My name is Aran. Welcome friend!" and "A weapon? I only make buckets, and sometimes parts of doors.") John starts to go from fascinated to frustrated, again.

The woman at the spinning wheel and the one making garlands both give them the standard intro ("You will find much happiness here!"). And a random monk-like person they manage to stop urges them to meditate if they are eager to Ascend. Rodney snorts.

About an hour of wandering around the place later, they are invited to "share the table" with the entire Cloister. The table turning out to be a large wooden construction standing smack dab in the middle of the village, with villagers all gathering around, carrying bowls and trays of exotic-looking food. There are dozens of breads and fruits, a variety of bright green and sunshine orange vegetables, even a spicy smelling brown soup and John thinks of all the villages they've been where hunger was predominant. Starving families sitting on the side of the road, children begging them for power bars. The people here seem well-fed, which may also be why the villagers want them to stay, John thinks. There's plenty to go around.

Rodney is already stuffing a grape into his mouth when Teer rises and lifts her arms up to the sky Darth Vader-style. "May those that came before us bless this food, for it is created by them, through them..." John mentally groans. More religion. He elbows Rodney and mouths "stop eating!" And when Rodney seems visibly torn between spitting the grape out again or swallowing it whole John has to look away for a second, afraid he's going to giggle in a kind of desperation because well, it's been that kind of day.

"...their souls have blessed us and guard us still..." Teer speaks on, seemingly undisturbed and he wonders whether she does this every night, or every meal, or whether it's a special one-time thing because there are new souls to indoctrinate.

He can see most of the people around them are starting to hold hands, and John is momentarily reminded of his Great Aunt Rose and how she would insist on praying that way, clutching his small hand into her clammy liver-spotted ones. He hesitantly reaches for Rodney's left hand.

"The Old Ones have graced us with water, fallen from the skies to nourish, to cool..."

Rodney's hand feels normal, thankfully. A little warm but comfortable against his skin. He's glad there's no one sitting on his other side, especially because Rodney is stuck holding Avrid's hand and prayer beads combo and doesn't seem too pleased about it. John wants to whisper something like "Could be worse!" to Rodney because yes, they have seen every kind of religious bullshit known to man. Or Wraith. Compared to that, holding hands is nothing, but he decides to stay silent.

"And lastly, we thank for our new friends, John, the brave, who fought the Beast to keep our brother Avrid from harm..." John grins. Hell yeah. He had always wanted the title of Beast-fighter. On the last three Beast-planets Ronon had gotten it. And before that, Teyla. And Rodney once by the merit of dropping his backpack on top of something snail-like (as far as Beasts went, that one had been small, but apparently deadly poisonous). In fact, John has yet to kill a single Beast and he feels sort of miffed about it. Rodney, apparently guessing what he's thinking, rolls his eyes at him.

"...and Doctor Rodney Mc-Kay..." Teer struggles a little to pronounce Rodney's name and John almost finds it funny. He would have, if he hadn't heard a small sliver of dislike underneath her hesitation. He looks at Rodney again, but he seems momentarily oblivious to it, already lovingly eying the soup. As Teer smiles at them he wonders whether he imagined it. They all bow their heads dutifully as she finishes off with a general "May they continue to bless us!" and sits down.

When she's done there's a sudden lull while people grab food and drink, so John pipes up with a "So..." but Rodney interrupts with "Where did the kid- eh, Hedda go?"

John is amazed that he even noticed, let alone remembered her name. They seem pleased with his question though, probably thinking it's out of politeness or gratitude instead of the curiosity John knows it is. "Hedda is resting now," Teer says. And John wonders if Rodney had been planning to take her back to Atlantis with him just to annoy Carson. Here, have a magical healing kid- guaranteed to make your doctoring skills obsolete!

"Is she... alright?" John asks, and they all smile serenely without saying anything until Teer answers again with "She shall be with us again soon." Which isn't really an answer, although that seems to be the way these people roll. John wishes for Teyla again. She could have dealt with them much more constructively. Actually, he wishes he had hung around the hippie-Buddhist crowd in college. He might have picked up something about how to handle these people.

Now he's stuck with the "Is there really no way out of here? No one you have heard of that got out?" type of approach, which doesn't help them much.

They get introduced to every single person there and John promptly forgets every name he hears. They all seem so very mellow and have such bland expressions there's not really anything to discern them from each other. They all nod and speak in hushed tones, and John is reminded of a monastery again. Not quite the same atmosphere, but the utter calm, the silence is very strange for the Pegasus galaxy.

They've been in many villages just like this one and there was always noise. Music, feasts, people talking through each other, kids running around the tables, babies screaming, adults flirting, shouting, laughing. Teyla had once told him there was much to be merry about if every day could be their last and he had sort of agreed. These people lived with the possibility of cullings every single day of their lives, the fear of it all needed to go somewhere. In most societies they'd visited, that went to parties, family, the celebration of life as a precious commodity. In some, it had gone to war. Cults of death, one of the anthropologists had called it. John still feels sick every time he thinks of the planet with the babies' heads on sticks, the burned hands and legs.

When dinner winds down they still have too many questions, but Teer pretty much insists they go to sleep, so they go. As John lies down on his bed he finds he is quite tired, and listening to the sound of Rodney's almost-instant snores he falls asleep.



John wakes to the sight of Teer sitting on his bed again, and it freaks him out, just a little. She's smiling and generally looking as wholesome and womanly as one would want, but still. He's a soldier; technically speaking, it shouldn't be that easy to sneak up on him while he's asleep.

He automatically looks over to the empty mattress on his right and Teer wins some points back as she frowns. "Your friend is at breakfast. He said he needed to eat for there to be sugar in his blood." He laughs at that. Oh yes, trust Rodney to enlighten every alien they meet about the dangers of hypoglycemia.

As he gets up and into his new Cloister-made boots (he still wants to know what happened to his old ones. Did the Beast eat them? Did Avrid steal them?), she asks him shyly, "John, I was hoping you could accompany me on my morning walk?"

He pretends to think it over so he doesn't have to answer until they're outside and he can see Rodney over at the table, deep in conversation with a bald man in a pink poncho. John nods. "Yeah, sure." They need to get information out of these people one way or another.

Teer leads the way to another flowery meadow, this time more south from where John thinks Beast-territory is. She starts picking flowers and John watches her for a while. The sun plays on her curls, making them look glittery. It reminds him a little of the curtains he has in Atlantis.

He's happily surprised when she breaches the subject herself. "John, you have been asking questions about how to get away from the Cloister." He swallows uneasily, almost like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar because, wow, there is accusation in that tone. She turns her eyes on him, looking honestly puzzled, "Why would you not want to stay here?"

John smiles in what he hopes is a kind fashion. "Well, you folks have been great. Really." He means it. They are all nice, if a little flaky. And the food is good too. She smiles back. "And we're happy to visit, it's just, we've got responsibilities back home—people we care about, and who care about us." He imagines Elizabeth, how worried she'd be if they didn't come back.

Teer turns away sharply under the cover of picking another flower, but he can see tears in her eyes. Feeling like a complete jerk (they did save their lives...) he decides to change the subject on her, something he has learned is also successful on dates. Or well, who is he kidding, conversations with commanding officers.

So he says, "Why did you come here?" and tries not to feel like it's a pick-up line of any sort. (Do you come here often? Can I get you a drink? )

"Well, I was born here," she says wryly. So he changes his question to: "No, I mean your people," which is something that works even on Teyla.

Predictably, that seems to make her happy. "Well, they came generations ago. I'm from a race of people who revered those who came before us, those who created this place."

"The Ancients?" John asks because, yes, he's heard her talk about them, but in a galaxy where 'those who came before us' and 'the old ones' can mean anything from rocks to Wraith, it's always good to double-check.

Teer nods. "To follow in their footsteps, to Ascend, was the greatest goal among our forefathers. Many centuries ago, some of our people sensed it was within them to do so. It took them many years to discover the location of this world and once they found it, they came here on a pilgrimage. We are their descendants."

John thinks of the people sitting around the table in the middle of the village. He had counted seventeen. "Not many of you left."

Teer sighs, "No. We are the last."

At this point he's getting curious. Can she Ascend at any point, like Chaya? "So what's holdin' you back?"

"Journeys such as ours can take a lifetime," which is, yes, an evasion if he's ever heard one. These people certainly have the priest-speak down. He tries to imagine spending his whole life preparing for the right way to die, only knowing at the end whether it actually worked.

"You afraid it might not happen?"

She grins, "I am not afraid of anything." And, well, nice of her to say that, but he's quite sure she's either lying or blissfully unaware she's sharing living space with one of the most resilient evil beings he has ever seen. "...I'd be pretty afraid of that Beast thing, aren't you?" he asks.

She smiles another of her serene smiles, and says, "As long as we stay in the Cloister, we are safe." As if there is nothing else in the world to do, to experience. He would go crazy in a couple days. In fact, he's going to get there pretty soon, so he figures it's best to just say it, "And what kind of life is that?"

While he thought she might be offended, she just smiles and winks, "Life here is not entirely without its pleasures John," before walking away. Damn. He's momentarily stunned, wondering whether she's really consciously flirting with him (she did grow up here, so she might be a little sheltered as to what 'pleasures' might entail), but he's quite sure she is. He'd wonder why, except growing up with such a small group of people around must make every stranger seem sexy.

He wonders how many women (or bald men) Rodney is fighting off right now. Except he probably wouldn't notice they were flirting with him in the first place. He thinks they might go for Rodney too. He's a hell of a lot of a better catch than that wimp Avrid anyhow. Having thought that, he's jogging to catch up with her and by the time he reaches her they're already too close to the village to talk about much of anything.

John does place himself in between the bald guy and Rodney though. Just in case.



After breakfast, Teer refuses to answer any more questions before they help out with chores. Saying that, she reminds him so much of his mother John is amazed he ever found her attractive at all. He shares a pained look with Rodney.

Rodney stages a token protest that involves a tirade about his intellect and not being used to manual labor, but eventually they decide to just play along. Not that they have much of a choice, but they might stumble across the power source Rodney insists must be powering the barrier, and then they'd be able to escape. Oh sure, after they leave they'd send Teyla with all of their gratitude and maybe some food and clothes, but they themselves? They'd run and never come back. "Run like hell," Rodney whispers urgently and John nods in agreement.

Since Hedda is apparently still out, Rodney is put in charge of her tasks. John thinks it's funny, especially after all the complaining because she's a little girl, but when he's hauling his tenth bucket of water to one of the huts and Rodney is seated at the table slicing zucchinis he feels slightly cheated.

After that, Rodney goes to retrieve eggs with a little basket and comes back looking traumatised, a feather stuck to the back of his shirt. John grins at him and Rodney gives him the complicated gesture involving his finger and a fist they learned on MX6-754. It means "your mother has the features of a boar, including the nostrils" and neither of them had thought it was that funny at the time, but for some reason Ronon kept cracking up every time they did it, so it had sort of wormed its way into Atlantean culture.

When he's done with his forty-three buckets of water (Reliving some fond memories of boot camp, he doesn't believe for a second this is done daily by anyone.), he goes to hang out with Rodney, who is stirring a type of pea soup and, instead of complaining, immediately slides close to John. John raises his eyebrows, but Rodney just says in what John imagines he thinks is a whispering tone, "We have to find something to do back in those fields. It's not around here and the more of the area we can see, the faster we get out of here."

John agrees and gets up to walk in the direction he saw Teer disappear. He finds her alone by one of the huge ovens, kneading dough and, by the smell of it, baking bread. The air smells like the mess on Atlantis, like almost-muffins and possibly pancakes and he grins when he sees her. She really is quite a beautiful woman. She has pale skin, brown curls, and an almost constant smile, plus she pretty much glows whenever he looks at her. There's a small patch of flour on her cheek, white, and powdery. Almost unconsciously, he raises his hand to wipe it off. She leans into his touch and beams at him when he leans back.

When there's a cough behind him he startles and Teer instantly whips around to check on the bread. John can see her disappointment in the line of her shoulders and he wonders whether she thought he had somehow been about to kiss her. Or do the glowy-thing, whatever. He hadn't even thought about it, but then again those things always did somehow seem to happen to him so maybe she had been about to...

Rodney either doesn't notice or doesn't care, because he starts right away, "Did you ask?"

John says, "Teer, we were wondering if we could..." but she interrupts him with just a touch of sadness.

"You wish to explore the boundaries of the Cloister to see if you can find a way to escape?"

John nods, for the second time that day feeling like the biggest jerk on the planet, even though theoretically he knows there's nothing wrong with asking. It's just the way her face falls, the way her eyes get dull when she says it. As if it's her personally he's trying to get away from (and he's not, he tells himself. He's so not.)

Rodney is nodding frantically and Teer, focusing on John, says, "Yes, but while you are there you must do something as well. We need milk."

She goes looking for a bucket and Rodney stares at her back in a way that John can see in him what he knows is true. Neither of them have ever gotten milk from anywhere besides a store in their lives. In fact, after almost two years in the Pegasus galaxy, John's not all that confident in his ability to recognise a cow or goat or whatever, let alone locate its... milk-giving parts.

Rodney looks at him nervously and says, "Do you...?"

John shakes his head. Nope. No clue. Rodney wants to beg out of it, he can tell, but by some feat of strength he stays still as Teer returns and hands the bucket to Rodney, lowering her eyes when she passes John.

When they ask her where to go she just points, apparently there are sheep running free among the grassy hills. When she matter-of-factly turns around and goes back to work John isn't sure whether she's actually secretly taking revenge on him for not proclaiming his undying love to her or whether she's just that dense because they have no idea how to do this. If Rodney's continually fearful looks towards the bucket and his own hands don't give them away John has no idea what would. But she just ignores them and off they go.

The meadow is very similar to the one John had visited with Teer that morning and predictably Rodney asks him about his little stroll with her. He stays vague about what she said ('Pleasure. Pleasure.' rolling dangerously through his mind).

Rodney mocks his Kirk-like ways anyway and John just shrugs. In this case he's not entirely sure it has anything to do with him, Teer looks like she would have thrown herself on anything vaguely manly that came through the portal. He decides not to mention that to Rodney though. It's better to let him stew.

Nor does he mention the fact that the bald guy, Heger, had seemed quite pissed when John had broken up his little chat with Rodney, which for some reason makes John ball his fists. He says, "Well, I promise I won't leave you alone at breakfast ever again, ok?" to the end of one of Rodney's rants about 'tramping about the jungle with the local tramp' and he's not surprised to find he means it. He would rather eat with Rodney than hang around Teer any more anyway. There's something about her that feels a little off.

When they reach to top of a small hill they look around, expecting to see the sheep; only there aren't any. John sighs.

"Should we, eh... call them?" Rodney asks.

John feels slightly silly as he takes a deep breath and yells, "Sheep? Sheeeeeepppp????"

Rodney is saying "Oh, smooth Sheppard, like that's going to..." but when the first "Baaaah?" sounds from behind the trees John feels vindicated.

Rodney notes, "You know, when I came to this galaxy I hadn't signed up to become a milk maid" and John has a momentary image of Rodney dressed up in a milk maid's outfit. The braids would look good on him.

They take some more coaxing to come closer, and Rodney joins in with the "Sheep? Come here. Come on!" and as the white and brown fluffy shapes come closer, "Should we try Carson's accent?"

John remembers something about Rodney having a cat, back home. As the sheep get into petting distance and Rodney eagerly holds out his hand, then lets them decide to come closer and strokes them behind their ears John thinks he might miss her. Maybe.

The sheep have become a vast throng of 'baah'-ing now, walking between them, black beady eyes looking at them, unsure feet shuffling, almost stepping on John's boots. While Rodney seems to be in his element, petting flanks and heads, pointing out the females with babies and, therefore, the milkable ones, John feels awkward. As soon as he reaches out to touch one's head it bares its teeth and he jumps. A little.

Rodney laughs and says something about his grandmother having a farm when he was small until he was no longer allowed to visit her because she had tried to kill him with lemon drops. John nods and pretends to listen to the story while being distracted by one of the sheep nibbling on the seam of Rodney's robe. It seems to really like Rodney.

John interrupts ("...I was suffocating and my sister was laughing at me while my face was turning blue and I mean actual, like, science-shirt blue...") and says, "How do we..." while pointing at the sheep. And their... lower parts.

Rodney looks at them. "Well, I can hold one, and you can..." he makes a milking motion with his hands.

John swallows. Right.

They decide on one of the white ones. Rodney lays one arm over its back, distracting it with offerings of grass and (surprisingly) kind words while John advances from behind. Before going down on his knees he spends a small moment longing for Wraith. Or well, enemies of any sort he can shoot. As opposed to... milk. At least there he doesn't feel so awkward.

He shoves the bucket in between the sheep's legs, realises with some clarity that he's looking right at its butt and goes looking for the... nipples. He has to squeeze his eyes shut before actually touching them, because ew. So very much ew.

It feels a little meaty, but, thank god, nothing like actual nipples. The sheep goes, "Baaaaa-aaa-aaa!" and moves a little, inching away from John. John feels guilty for touching it that way and wonders whether he's making it uncomfortable.

Rodney goes back to petting its head and calls it a "brave, brave girl". A couple of the other sheep move closer, maybe curious, maybe threatening, John doesn't know. He takes another deep breath (the sheep smells quite foul up close like that), holds one of the nipple things in his hand, and pulls. When nothing happens, he tries to remember watching National Geographic when he was younger, but all he can think of is alligators. Or strangely, once seeing something about badgers. And, well, a lot of shows about the history of flight. Nothing about milking sheep.

The sheep starts calling again, sounding a little frustrated. Even the one that had been nibbling on Rodney's robe has stopped and is creeping closer. John moves awkwardly to angle his face where he can see what he's doing and tries again, squeezing a little and adding a sort of downward movement he thinks should do the trick, but there's still no milk.

Finally he looks up to Rodney, ready to admit that, no, he really doesn't know how to do this. "It doesn't..."

"Maybe pull harder?" Rodney suggests, making another hand-motion that apparently startles the sheep, because that's when...

John gets hit by a hoof in the face.

He falls backward into the grass (he should never have taken his eyes off the damn thing). Rodney swears and lets go and as the one sheep bucks and jumps all of them start bleating anxiously and trampling each other in their haste to get away. John gets another hoof in the stomach, all of them ba-baaing up to a great crescendo and taking off over the hill in a flurry of woolly coats and brown hooves.

John lets himself lie there for a bit. Crap.

Rodney is charmingly apologetic, talking about internal bruising and broken jaws, fingers dancing over John's torn shirt, over the huge bruise that's beginning to blossom on the left side of John's face. John can feel the skin heat up and pulsate even under the cool touch of Rodney's fingers. He doesn't tell him about the one on his stomach.

When he gets up and holds onto Rodney for a second, Rodney supports him easily and he feels a stab of gratitude for that. He's not really dizzy, mind. It's just that well, being hit in the face by a sheep is bound to be unpleasant for anyone. Rodney starts telling him another story of how he got bitten by a dog once and then ended up taking it home, so strangely there was still a happy ending in there. John just listens and lets himself lean close.

They walk further over the hill to the beginnings of the mountains, to the bluish shimmering shield that stops them from going any further. Once there Rodney pokes the shield with the bucket and hums. John sits down again. He knows it's going to take a while.

The grass is quite comfortable, lush and green the way it isn't even on the mainland. Rodney talks while he investigates, about the power of the shield, about using the angles to calculate the origin of the power source and John is listening until he apparently isn't anymore.

He wakes up to a small tugging sensation on his hair. He knows where he is right away and even though he still feels a little fuzzy, he doesn't think he has done much more than close his eyes for a bit. Though he does have a vague memory of dreaming about Teer. He waves his arm. "D'nt touch..."

The pulling doesn't stop. He feels a little wetness by the side of his ear, then there's the sudden smell of grass and something animal like and he's jumping up, running his fingers through his hair and having a moment of intense, manly panic.

Rodney is standing a couple feet further, cracking up. He would later claim John had in fact screamed like a chimpanzee and that the sheep had only looked mildly flabbergasted. John would make him swear to never tell the story again.

Once John gets over the fact that something had just tried to nibble his hair, he notices that, next to Rodney, is the bucket, half-filled with a whitish liquid. And in the distance are the rest of the sheep, eyeing John warily.

Rodney looks disturbingly proud.

"The energy source isn't here, not even close, but as soon as you were out- and thank you for falling asleep by the way, nice to know that you're here to protect me from, oh, wild Beasts and things trying to kill me- they came over. I'm quite sure they actually like me." He beams at John and John can't help but beam back a little. Rodney did it, he actually milked a sheep!

They walk back following the shield, Rodney looking at the way it curved back towards the Cloister. The sheep follow them at a distance, bah baaah bahing away, until they get too close to the collection of houses that makes up the Cloister and they turn away. John wonders if they're afraid of the Beast.

Once back John lets Rodney get the milk to Teer and he retreats to their cabin. He has another slight freak-out about the sheep saliva stuck in his hair, submerging his entire head in their bucket with water. He figures since he went to get the damn thing that very morning, he's allowed to.

He's half-way into undressing, getting his torn shirt off and trying to wash the grass stains from his elbows, when Rodney comes in.

Rodney is usually oblivious to anything besides blatant nakedness (John knows for a fact Rodney doesn't notice half the time when the locals are naked. Rodney even once commented on a woman's 'nice dress' when it in fact she had just been coated in mud. The woman had drop-kicked Rodney in the solar plexus.), but he seems to notice now, coming to a stammering halt in the doorway. "Eh well, I... ah..."

"Come in." John says, vaguely wondering why he's suddenly shy now and, for lack of anything else to come to mind, sticks his head in the bucket again.

After he goes searching for a shirt, they get invited to go along to get some wood and to see the other side of the Cloister. A river with fish in it, more meadows, orchards, well-maintained fields, forest, and, always present, the vague snow-tipped mountains with the blue shimmer of the shield before their slopes.

When John crawls into bed that night he is absolutely beat and even Rodney looks down. He doesn't fall asleep easily though, instead looking through the window to the stars in the night sky. His face still hurts, his head pounding. Rodney is twisting and turning in his bed as well and even though he doesn't speak John knows he's awake still.

He has no idea how they're going to get back home.



Breakfast the next day involves a sort of runny oatmeal with their (okay, Rodney's) sheep milk in it. Teer, predictably, smiles at John when she hands him a bowl. Her eyes linger on his face though and he knows what she's seeing. John has yet to find a mirror in the entire Cloister, but he knows his face must be sporting a quite impressive bruise. His entire left side feels tender and he wonders whether there's actually a hoof-shaped mark on there. He could ask Rodney, but Rodney is preoccupied with staring into his own bowl and mumbling about melanoma and dying of cancer. When John looks really close he can see that Rodney's cheeks, nose, and the side of his ears are sunburned to a vague red. It makes him look like he's blushing, John thinks.

Once Rodney's done eating he goes on to explain the concept of the sun's radiation to Avrid, using a piece of bread and an apple as props. (The bread is the sun and the apple is Avrid. John would have done it the other way around- since Avrid has about the personality of wet bread, but he doesn't interrupt.) Avrid, at first only pretending to be interested, starts looking quite concerned around the words "die like a dried out husk" and John wants to laugh, but tries not to because his cheek still hurts.

Teer tells him to go find Hedda in the orchards, so she can heal him. He has every intention of saying no (this kind of bruise he's quite fine with, it's only the life-threatening kind he needs healed), until he realizes that he hasn't seen Hedda since she healed them. He remembered her yelling, smiling. He knows now that that's in sharp contrast to most of the arguably brain-washed adults around and he wonders whether she can tell him something they won't.

When he tells Rodney about the 'let's go get the truth out of the kid' plan Rodney agrees, and says he wants to walk to the shield again anyway. John isn't sure he should let him go alone, but he's gone with Avrid before he can tactfully say anything. He knows this side of the Cloister is absurdly safe anyway, sheep notwithstanding, but he feels like he should go along for some reason, even if it's just to fall asleep while Rodney works.

He feels a lot better when, ten minutes later, Rodney hails him on his radio.

"These people are morons! They live with a shield their entire lives and none of them have any idea what kind of force it would take to break through, no idea what it really does besides keep them in, no idea how it's powered..."

John smiles and listens to the familiar sound of Rodney ranting in his ear. He didn't know the radios would work inside the barrier, but yet as soon as he had seen his lying on the table in their hut he had put it on. He knew Rodney had put on his radio as well and he's glad about it now, even more amused when realises the people with Rodney probably have no idea how a radio works and will think he's talking to himself.

John follows the path they had walked the day before, past the small river and onto the orchards. They are beautifully maintained, the trees green and lively, the beginnings of apples and pears ripening on their branches. He finds a sign of Hedda near a cherry tree, an abandoned bowl half-filled with picked cherries and a white apron thrown to the side. He almost worries for her, looking around through the trees, thinking about whether he should call someone, when he hears her voice.

"John? John, up here!"

He stares up to the sun and the top branches of a tree, finally seeing a small figure sitting on a branch, her feet swinging in the air.

He waves. She starts her decent, sliding down carefully, her skirt racking up over her legs, and John sees her slide against the stem, a flash of a scraped knee before it heals itself.

She's going to jump from the lowest branch that's still a couple feet above John's head and she looks totally capable of doing so, but for some reason unknown to himself he holds out his arms and says, "I'll catch you." She jumps, trusting him easily, and when he lowers her down to the ground she smiles at him. "My mother used to catch me. When I was a child," she adds at John's look and he wonders whether she doesn't think of herself as a child anymore.

She looks tired, he thinks. Pale and wan, like she hasn't eaten in a couple days. He wants to ask her about it but she's already reaching her hand out towards his cheek saying, "you should have come earlier John, I could have taken the pain away." He stops her hand before she can reach his face.

"It's ok, you don't need to heal me." Her brow furrows, "But you are hurt John!" She seems genuinely confused, but John is stuck on the bluish tint of her skin. The smallness of her wrists. He wonders whether she really should be climbing trees, let alone healing people.

"It's nothing." He says. And then, to change the subject, "Were you playing?"

She looks a little chastised at that, as if she wasn't supposed to, and says, "I was picking cherries."

"Uh-uh," John says and he grins at her. Slowly, she smiles back.

She runs to get the bowl of cherries and, once she has it, she puts one on her mouth and offers the others to John. "Do you want some?"

John shakes his head, "No, thanks." He doesn't like cherries. They remind him too much of his ex, who would feed them to him even if he said he had enough. He still doesn't know if she just wanted to fatten him up or if she genuinely thought it was sexy to see him munch on a cherry and then spit out the pit.

Thinking for a moment, he says, "You know what I will do though?"

"What?" she asks.

"I will climb that tree with you." He doesn't know why he's even offering (he hasn't climbed a tree since he was, what, in middle school?), but as soon as he sees her smile he knows it's the right thing to do.

He lets her go first, then takes a short run, jumping to hold on to the lowest branch and swinging his feet until he can wrap them over it. He almost doesn't make it, breathing hard and grunting, hands slipping on the tree bark. By the time he shuffles to sit next to her his arms are shaking, he's bright red, and completely out of breath. He mentally commends her for not laughing at him and starts thinking about adding 'climbing trees' to the curriculum for his marines.

When he's done catching his breath he focuses on Hedda again. She says, "No one has climbed a tree with me since Syrion Ascended."

"Oh? Who was he?" John asks and she tells him eagerly about her brother, who had been only two years older than her. And her mother. They both Ascended when she was five and John can't help but feel anger towards them. Who would leave their kid behind like that? Even if it was for a higher purpose or eternal enlightenment, she was still a kid!

Hedda is the last child left in the entire Cloister. John wonders if anyone ever plays with her.

After they have talked for a while she says, "Can I heal you now?" in such a manner that he almost wants to say, "Sure!" just to make her feel better. Instead he throws his arm around her and she snuggles close right away. He looks at their feet, swinging in unison. He starts to get a cramp in his butt, but he doesn't move.

"John?" she says, speaking mainly to his armpit.


"I'm really happy you're going to be Teer's husband."

He startles. "Um...?" The movement dislodges him and he's sliding forward, leaning over. He lets go of Hedda, but has no way to stop his own descent, so he sort of lets himself fall down. Hedda jumps after him, landing lightly on the grass. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah," he says, struggling up. His ankle stings and he adds it to the list of bruises already covering his body. Seriously, Cloister boot camp for his marines, they'd like it he tells himself. Oh yeah.

"Hedda, why do you think I'm going to marry Teer?" he asks wearily. There really never was a way to tell when he would end up accidentally married again. In this case it's even more disturbing because they have not found a way out yet. At least he's fairly sure Teer's father is no longer alive to hit him with sticks. He sometimes still has nightmares of M5X-986.

"Oh, she saw it." Hedda says matter-of-factly. "Ever since I was a little she told me you would come from a planet far away and you would be hers. That's how she knew your name too."

"Oh?" John says, having nasty, nasty flashbacks to Chaya and her idea of romance. He suddenly remembers his primary purpose for coming out here to talk to Hedda, namely, to find a way to get out.

"She never said anything about Rodney though," Hedda says, frowning a little. "You think maybe he will be mine?"

John starts to feel a little light-headed. He wants to say that no, no way in hell Rodney will be hers, but she's a kid and lonely so he just says, "You know, maybe we should... walk over there."

She's still stuck on the subject though and says, "Or oh, I think Avrid would like a mate!"

John coughs. Count on ten-year old Pegasus girls to show the first sign of gay-friendliness he has yet encountered in the entire galaxy.

He spends the rest of the morning with her, but by noon she becomes visibly tired and he walks her back to her cabin, carrying her bowl with cherries.

When he hails Rodney on the radio again he sounds tired as well. "There's nothing I can do here. I need to find the power source, turn it off. It's simple. I just need to find it. But it's not... It's not here."

"Okay." John says. "Okay."



The next day John gets urged to join the entire Cloister in meditation. Rodney either doesn't get invited or refuses, John is willing to bet on the second one, because when he arrives Rodney isn't there and when he taps his radio Rodney just says, "Busy."

So John does the peaceful, kind, grateful thing (in his mind he just keeps up a mantra of "Teyla. Be like Teyla."), and visits their version of a prayer room. It's built on a platform of some sort, very Oriental-looking. Instead of windows there are sequined orange drapes waving in the wind, billowing back and forth. They instantly remind him of home or, maybe, Rodney's robes. It smells like they're burning a kind of incense and he thinks that maybe he should try to get some for Teyla. He has forgotten to get her anything for her Athosian equivalent of woman's day ('where we celebrate our mothers, daughters, our female friends') for two years in a row now; he should probably do something about that before she hits him with sticks again.

He cautiously walks past people sitting on little mats or pillows, cross-legged or on their knees, their eyes closed. There's a seat open up front, probably their seat of honor, John thinks (or maybe just so they can keep an eye on him) and he sits down on the fuchsia pillow.

Hedda is sitting on his far right, a bright orange shawl wrapped around her thin shoulders, hiding her brown curls. He tries to catch her gaze, but she doesn't look up once.

Everybody is mouthing, sometimes murmuring words. Avrid is touching his prayer beads again, raising them towards his head. He looks peaceful. Heger, Rodney's bald friend, is behind John, making a soft "ooooooohhhhhmmmmm" sound on every exhale. John tries to close his eyes.

He thinks about Teyla and Ronon. Elizabeth. About Atlantis, about getting out, about what they're going to do if Rodney doesn't find the answer soon.

He lasts for half an hour before getting up as quietly as he can and creeping off. Meditating was never his forte anyways.

He finds Rodney in their hut, in the process of stripping off his soaked robe. Rodney doesn't seem shy right then at all (he is wearing a white kind of underskirt thing, John sees.) No, he's excited. "I got caught in the rain!"

"Rain?" John looks at the perfectly moderate sunshine outside while Rodney nods.

"When they're all inside meditating? It rains in the fields. Which got me thinking, with the time dilation thing, the field, I mean, not the field field, but the time field, must generate its own day and night cycle, which yes, is a given, but also its own artificial climate. It's incredible! They have actually figured out how to do this, how to make things grow how to make the seasons optimal for everything, everyone, it's..." His hands drop.

"Cool?" John asks, smirking.

"Yeah," Rodney says. His undertone is a little sad though.

John gets it. The cooler this field, the more complicated, the less chance they're going to find the actual power source. The less chance they're getting away. Rodney steps out of his little skirt thing and John almost tips over a chair in his haste to turn around.



The second time John goes meditating, Teer, apparently having noticed his previous failure, comes to sit next to him. She holds his hand and smells like flowers, up close. She whispers to him about his breaths, what parts of him he needs to relax, but John is mostly aware of the fact that his palm is sweating and sort of sticking uncomfortably to hers.

As the minutes pass by it just gets worse and when he opens his eyes he can see she actually has her eyes open and is lovingly looking at him. She almost leans in and this time he does realise that there's a definite immediate kissing danger, so he closes his eyes again and tries to focus on, eh, meditating.

It doesn't work. The sound of the curtains moving behind him still remind him of Rodney's dress, although Rodney, having adapted to the local couture surprisingly fast, is wearing the faded pink variety with red pants today. The incense tickles his nose and makes him sneeze four times in rapid succession. Having Teer sitting that close makes him feel incredibly twitchy because, if anything, she's intense. She whispers into his ear about the Ancients, about making his body float on the stream of holy unconsciousness or something- at that point he's not actually listening anymore, just thinking about how to get away.

The next day he goes back (but forbids Teer to sit next to him, he tells her he can't focus with her beauty so close by which makes her flush, so he counts that one as a win) and the next. He doesn't really know why, just that he feels like he needs to try at least. He tells Rodney he doesn't want to alienate the people, and Rodney just shrugs. He doesn't truly care, John knows, but it feels important.

It takes him three weeks of frustration and the jittery feeling of needing to go and do something whenever he tries to think of nothing to find out that only time he can truly relax is when he occupies his mind with something he loves enough to actually think about.

And so, he thinks about planes. Johnny Cash lyrics.

His favorite is the puddle jumper. He thinks about the experience of going inside, feeling the controls, reliving the feeling of flying one in great detail. When he does that he can last up to an hour, Teer gives him huge grins, and Hedda will whisper to him, "You are learning John!".

He feels pleased.



After that, the weather heats up rapidly. Rodney determines the artificial climate control must have a certain number of days that mean spring and they are definitely sliding into "high summer" now. They had been on the verge of summer on Atlantis when they left, so it still feels quite natural, but John can tell Rodney is both fascinated and freaked out by the unreality of their environment.

"Maybe this thing was created as a sort of limbo," Rodney says at night, both of them in bed, almost asleep, chatting idly. "We're waiting to either go on, evolve, Ascend, or whatever, or to die."

"Oh, come on, McKay, don't tell me you don't want the power to rule the universe as an Ascended being," John says, trying desperately to keep his voice light.

Rodney huffs. "Rather me than any of these religion blabbering fools." John can tell he's honestly annoyed.

They're both trying hard to keep onto the illusion that they're almost there, that Rodney will find the power source, that they will be out of there soon. They both know the chances are getting smaller by the day.



After that, John starts running again. He doesn't truly think the work isn't keeping him in shape, or that he needs to run, but it helps him to feel less closed in. Less trapped.

The days are hot now, so John wakes up early every morning- when the sun has just started rising, when it's still misty. Rodney will still be fast asleep then, and John sometimes watches him while getting dressed. Rodney looks unassuming in sleep. Gentle.

He always moves as quietly as he can, so as not to wake Rodney. Sometimes he does, though and John can see him look at him, eyes still clouded with sleep, but with an underlying fondness. His look means something like, "You fool, getting up this early to run." And John will smile, the image of Rodney's sleep-flushed face staying with him through most of the day.

When he's outside, John stretches (an activity which had attracted much curiosity the first couple times), does a couple push-ups and sit-ups, and then starts running.

He runs across the Cloister, across well-traveled paths, across grass still wet with dew. He runs up the hill and past the sheep, who are used to him by now. They sometimes follow him for a bit, bleating their hellos.

He passes the field he has helped plow, where he helps tend to the corn, the potatoes, the wheat.

He passes the orchards that are getting more diverse with fruit now, the first small green apples that leave a sharp tang after eating them. Prunes and peaches that are sweet and juicy, staining his hands and shirt.

By the time he gets back he runs with the early heat warming his shoulders, the first traces of sunshine breaking through the morning mist.

He can hear the murmurs of prayers coming from the monastery, see the flickering of candles through the curtains. Hedda, when she's not praying, will greet him with a grin and a "Good morning John!" Sometimes she will run a short while with him.

Rodney is rarely home by the time John returns, his nightclothes flopped on the floor, some splatters of water next to the bucket where they wash. Rodney always leaves breakfast for John though.

They stopped eating at the big table the morning after Rodney gave a big speech about the Ancients being wrong and Teer said something about "the words you speak pollute our hearts". It sort of went downhill from there. John didn't focus on anything but the "you are a complete idiot, listen to me prove you wrong" expression on Rodney's face, and how he had sort of missed it. For some reason they're still allowed to the big table for dinner though (evidently, heart pollution isn't that bad at night?), but he's not about to question it.

John doesn't quite know why he doesn't mind, but it almost feels more intimate to come home to this. To the fruit Rodney has picked out for him, the milk, the small bread rolls, the oatmeal with honey. Rodney never leaves him cherries.

While John gets water in the mornings, works the fields, helps with baking and cooking and shaving sheep and the hundred-and-one other things that need to be done in a society as primitive as theirs, Rodney looks at the shield. Calculates. John knows it's not going anywhere. He can see it in the slant of Rodney's mouth and his eyes when he sits down every evening at the table next to him.

At the rate of two hundred and fifty to one, Zelenka must be at the portal now. Elizabeth too, perhaps. He tries not to think of them too often. They still have a much bigger chance getting out by themselves

John sometimes goes along on Rodney's wanderings, but as the time goes on he knows he's being less and less useful. There's nothing that can happen to Rodney as long as he stays inside the Cloister and they're not ready to go outside and face the Beast. Yet.

The batteries of their headsets run out after the first month. John continues to wear his for days afterwards, out of habit. Eventually they retire to lie side by side on their table.



The summer has been going on for a couple weeks when John finally gets up the courage to go swimming in the river.

He has been invited a number of times, but he has had no desire to go, because the people in the Cloister? Generally not too concerned with modesty. He had been flashed by Avrid once already (dress slip) which had been quite traumatic in and of itself, mainly because he's not entirely sure it wasn't intentional. So, no, he does not want to see Heger naked or Teer's breasts (even though Rodney had once described them as 'surprisingly perky for a society without bras'). He can't help it, he just doesn't feel like it's the same as 'showering with your army buddies', as that was what Rodney had compared it to.

Which led him to wondering when Rodney had ever showered with army buddies. And why he was ok with it, because Rodney had been singing the praises of swimming on a daily basis for a while now.

When he eventually breaks it's due to a small amount of curiosity (perky?) and the deep, deep desire for a shower.

It had been a warm, sticky day from the moment John woke up. He had cut his run short and hauled extra buckets of water, but in the early afternoon he felt sweaty and dirty. To the point where he waited until most of them would be meditating and went down to the stream.

When he arrives there is just one person by the bend in the river where the water runs slow and John can see even from that far away that it's...

"Sheppard!" ...Rodney.

Rodney has stopped covering himself up every time he changes, deeming it impractical since they basically live together, so John has seen a fair amount of pale, broad back in the past weeks. But seeing it in the dark of their hut did not quite compare to doing so in bright daylight technicolor. John swallows.

Rodney is still wearing his skirt-like underwear, thank god, but it's very fine fabric and John can see the dark shadow of what must be... He tries to stop his train of thoughts right there.

Rodney is smiling at him, like he seems genuinely happy that John came over, and says, looking smug, "Finally got the courage to come and face the nakedness, have you?"

"Yeah," John admits good-naturedly, grinning a little. He doesn't care that Rodney knows about his slight issues with, well, people. Lord knows Rodney has enough of them himself.

John tries his best to appear nonchalant while stepping closer and noticing that Rodney has tan lines on his biceps. And that there are freckles on Rodney's legs. Freckles.

He lowers his voice, "Teer here?"

"No," Rodney snorts. "They're meditating. They're always meditating, haven't you noticed yet?" Then, looking at John and the careful way he has started slipping his shirt over his head he adds, "She has seen you naked before, you know."

"It's not that," John admits from under the shirt. "It's just..."

"Oh my god, you're afraid she's going to jump you once she sees your overwhelming manliness, aren't you!"

John, lowering his shirt to the ground, mentally groans because as a matter of fact, yes, yes he is. Teer has been coming on to him stronger and stronger the longer they're here and at this point he almost expects her to turn up in his bed someday. But Rodney wouldn't see it that way, so he just smiles in what he hopes is a mysterious way (but which tends to come out goofy) and nods.

"Oh, like she hasn't already," Rodney says darkly and John suddenly feels the need to defend his virtue. "I don't..." Like her, he wants to say. Only he does. He feels sorry for her, he admires her spunk, admires that, as opposed to most in the Cloister, at least she still seems to wants something out of life before calling it quits. Some days he thinks about kissing her.

"What, like you didn't with Chaya?" Rodney says, but it's more about teasing than anger, which is what John would have expected, before. He laughs, deeply and loudly. Rodney looks at him with almost surprise in his eyes. John realises it's the first time he has actually responded in a way remotely honest about the whole Chaya thing and Rodney looks at him like he might want to ask why, but then doesn't.

John still feels a little awkward about the whole being naked thing. He can feel his hands shaking a little as he lowers his pants. He had ditched the skirt thing pretty much from day one, so he's always going commando under the brown linen. It's not exactly comfortable either and he wants to find a replacement, but he's afraid to ask about what the women wear under their skirts because well, there are only so many societies where that kind of thing would not be frowned upon.

Rodney steps out of his own underwear and when John put his pants down on the ground he leads the way towards the river. John follows and has a stray thought about snow. Mainly he can tell that there are fine, fine hairs spread across... He can hear Rodney splashing as he steps into the water and he chastises himself. Rodney would most certainly not want him to be looking at... that.

The water is incredibly refreshing, and Rodney moans in a completely inappropriate way as he ducks his head under. "Oh... my kingdom for a shower."

"This is good, too" John says, and he means it. The water eases the strain in his shoulder from carrying buckets. It flushes away the grime on his neck, it makes his hair feel that much more perky.

"Well, yes, the water pressure in our showers could be better, I give you that, but..." and Rodney is talking again. John lets his words flush over him as they splash towards the middle of the river, the water level going to chin height.

Eventually Rodney stops talking and starts floating on his back.

John does the same. The water blocks his ears so he can hear nothing but the rushing of the river, the sound of the water lapping up to the shore. The sun is warm on his face and when he opens his eyes he can see the bright blue sky, occasionally a perfect little cloud floating by. He wonders whether they're on some sort of complicated timer. He watches for a while, but then closes his eyes again, lets the water engulf him. It's strangely calming. The current makes them bump together every couple minutes, arm to arm, one time John's foot to Rodney's thigh, but neither of them pull away.

When they get out John feels both incredibly refreshed and rested. He only puts his pants on again, preferring to let his body dry on its own.

As he gets back to the Cloister Teer is busy making dinner and she almost drops her tray as she sees him. He gives her a bright smile in return. He feels great, suddenly alive and happy. When he feels her gaze lingering on his back he turns around again and goes to help her with her work. She touches his hand while he reaches out for a potato and he rubs his fingers against hers. He doesn't know if it's a promise, but right then he doesn't mind making one. She's beautiful.

Rodney comes back shortly after that, so John excuses himself and they go sit at the table together. Teer looks at him all through dinner, a warm smile on her lips, but John is busy trying to help Rodney calculate the most obvious place for a power source (which, sadly, at this point they're thinking might be underground), so he doesn't notice.

Rodney is still talking as dinner ends and they continue on the walk back to their cabin. One of the biggest problems in calculating anything at all is that they don't have a computer or, well, paper. Rodney had made charcoal (by burning willow branches in a slow, covered fire), so they could write, but the problem was on what to do it.

By the time they go to sleep several hours later their oil-lamp is burned out. There are hundreds of numbers written on the wood of John's bed, spilling over onto the wall, going on almost all the way to the ceiling. Some of them are smeared where Rodney had pointed something out, others faded or crossed out.

The tips of John's fingers are black and there are smears all over Rodney's arms and one over the stubble on his cheek. When they're in bed and Rodney blows the last candle out, John promises they can write on the table next and Rodney almost laughs.

For all the numbers, they're not closer to a solution, but it still was a good day, John thinks. Yeah.



The next day while meditating, John thinks of Rodney.

The day is scorching, damp and almost wildly warm and suffocating. Sitting in the prayer room John can feel the sweat pool on his lower back, stick his legs together. Even the normally breezy curtains are hanging flat and lifeless and it's only morning.

Showing that there is a limit to what even Ancient wanna-be's can endure, almost everyone is at the river already. There is a pale woman, Ennah, murmuring to John's left, but besides that he is alone.

He doesn't even know why he has come, just that he wants to think, maybe. He hadn't slept much the night before, Rodney's words still ringing in his mind until the night went from dark to inky gray. Meditating has become a habit by now. The sun stings his eyes and he longs for the heady, heavy, sweet smell of the room. The smell of sweat and bodies so close together is almost comforting.

While he sits down, his vision greys out slowly. He no longer has to focus on his breaths, not on days like this, when it is almost like taking a nap only clearer, so much more like light in his mind, like grey-blue Ancient tech and oceans.

He thinks about Teer's happiness from the night before. He can easily replay the gentle touch of her fingers, her sweet smile, the light in her eyes. He'd thought he wouldn't mind making a promise then and he still doesn't now. He thinks about what it would be like to kiss her. To feel her smile against his lips, her soft hands trail his skin.

But he could go back to the river, he knows. Rodney would like him to, he's almost certain. He could go watch Rodney's pale skin, mentally count the dozens of freckles spread across his body again. He could see Rodney smile, see the way his eyes light up when he talks about something he likes. Atlantis. ZPM's. Cake. He could go with Rodney into the fields again, to explore, only there is nothing left to explore or look at but Rodney's grins and Rodney's sadness, and John is almost afraid to look, now.

After long minutes of dreading it he gives in and thinks of a nameless body, (only there had been a name, once). He thinks of a boy he knew when he was thirteen, one he knew when he was twenty. They have nothing in common, those boys, only that his mind wants to put Rodney's eyes in their faces, Rodney's freckles on their skin, Rodney's voice saying "yes" and "John".

He suddenly wants Rodney to touch him, to ground him. Rodney does, but it's mindless, out of annoyance, sometimes out of worry. John wants something slow and spends long, long moments thinking of what the left side of Rodney's hip would feel like sliding under his sweaty palms. He thinks of colors- bright blues and pale whites and oranges and the safe, faded brown of their floor- and the way Rodney's tunic would look crumpled up there.

He thinks of Rodney's throat and putting browsing, open-mouthed kisses there, trying to find a taste of home.

He thinks of Rodney's face, imagines him happy and it's an actual physical pain, a burning in his chest.

He imagines threading water next to Rodney and plastering their bodies together, just for a slickperfectskin second. He imagines stretching out his hand, from his bed to Rodney's, and trailing his fingers, again and again. He wants to touch Rodney's lips, maybe with his own, kiss. the time he opens his eyes and gets up, stiffly, the heat has gotten even worse, and it's high noon. The entire village is quiet, dead, and he's hard.

He goes back to their cabin and touches himself, feathery light and exploring, just to feel and not to complete, for long, long minutes. He finishes it on a high, high crescendo; he is too afraid Rodney will come in and see him. After that he does fall asleep, only waking when Rodney shakes him awake in the late afternoon.

Later, he will blame it all on heat stroke.



They don't know there's going to be a party, an actual Harvest Festival type thing with a blessing to the Ancients and alcohol, until one morning when the fields have dried to honey gold and the trees have changed into reds and browns. Then, with the apples and the corn picked and stored away and all the grapes finally drying in the sun, Teer announces it over breakfast.

John gives Rodney a surprised look. He didn't know these people knew the verb "to party". They have been there an entire season, a little over four months now, and even though Rodney rolls his eyes at the prospect, the thought of a feast (and the food involved) makes his eyes sparkle, so John nudges his shoulder and says, "Cool."

When they all go to meditate on the harvest in preparation John finds out that Heger does, in fact, have a little brewery going. He's rarely been so happy at the thought of a drink, but Rodney, Rodney has a look of yearning on his face that reminds him of chocolate pudding day in the mess.

As the evening falls they build a huge bonfire, the food and drink and flower necklaces come out, and John thinks he can see an actual tear in the corner of Rodney's eye as he talks about "destroying my brain cells" and takes a big swig of what looks like a malt brew. The beer really isn't as strong as what they would have been drinking on Earth, but it's been months in the Cloister and almost two years in Pegasus total, so both of them are pleasantly buzzed by the time dinner ends.

"Oh, he wasn't and you know it!" Rodney says, gesturing wildly with something that looks like asparagus, but is in fact a very sweet type of bean. They're sitting on the grass, with a view of the bonfire, Avrid and his sister, Laia, looking on amusedly.

"He was too, McKay!" John says, pitching his voice the way he knows Rodney hates, and Rodney waves in indignation.

"Robin is not the second most important character in the Batman series," Rodney says seriously. "He never did anything remotely useful, he was..."

"This Robin, this is someone you both know?" Avrid interrupts, looking eager to be included.

Rodney grins, and John shares a look with him. By now, they've perfected the 'let's confuse the alien by trying to explain pop culture references' thing.

John starts, "No, he is a fictional... he's a hero."

Rodney jumps in to help him saying, "And sometimes they have special powers, like, mind reading, or healing powers..."

Suddenly John feels small hands on his shoulder, fingers touching his ear, and he sees Hedda stepping away quickly, giggling. "You look pretty John!"

Rodney snorts, and John raises his hand up to his ear, feeling the flower stuck behind it, the frilly petals cool to the touch. He's willing to bet it's a pink one. He winks at Hedda. "Thank you!"

Rodney gives her a thumbs up, and then goes on, "Anyway, or the ability to fly, or..."

John looks at Hedda as she joins Teer near the fire and gets involved in a complicated looking dance, the fire playing on their hair, their bare feet dancing in the grass. She seems happy. They all do. Not all of the villagers are dancing, most are like John and Rodney sitting on blankets, drinking beer, talking. They're all there though, and for once it almost feels like Atlantis, John thinks. Friends.

"Or telekinesis, which is the ability to move things with your mind..."

"Oh, like Teer's mother!" Laia says, nodding, and John turns to look at her. Rodney stops, mouth half-open "You're serious?"

"Yes," Avrid nods. "Many that are close to Ascension acquire these abilities. I remember her well; she would make the table spoons dance for us when we were little."

Laia adds "Oh, or the puppets she made, do you remember?"

Avrid nods again, and then, to John's surprise, says, "Maybe these superheroes you speak of were nearing Ascension as well?"

John had never quite thought of it that way but, wow, that would be awesome!

Rodney apparently has because he says immediately, "Theoretically, it could be possible, because we do have people on Earth with the gene, eh, the Ancient gene, descendants of the Ancients..."

"Like me!" John interrupts, and Rodney rolls his eyes. "Yes, like the Colonel here..."

Rodney looks at him, "Which, come to think of it, if you're going to start moving spoons with your mind any time now you might reconsider that meditation routine, Colonel." John laughs.

Heger comes by to pour them another beer and John realises his face is hot, his movements a little slower, his smile a little more fond when he looks at Rodney again. Rodney has been drinking almost as much as he has, and John feels a slow heat build in his stomach. It wouldn't be too hard to reach over now and kiss him.

Maybe Rodney still tastes like home, John thinks. Maybe.

He's still sober enough to know there's no way in hell he's actually going to do anything, ever, but still...

"Are there people who Ascended on Earth as well?" Avrid asks, sounding interested.

Rodney, obviously on a roll by now, stretches out his legs while he replies. "Only one that I know of, his name is Daniel Jackson and he's a member of the SGC, although I don't think he could do anything, it had more to do with dying after a good deed and whatnot..." The movement means he becomes a warm presence next to John's side, their shoulders easily leaning together. John feels his heart stutter, but Rodney doesn't seem to notice, so he leans back. A little.



Teer joins them a couple minutes later. She looks beautiful, curls tousled, face flushed with heat and laughter, her dress wrinkled, still out of breath from spinning Hedda around.

John says, "Hey, they were just telling us about your mother..."

Teer looks at him gratefully. "I remember my mother well. She Ascended when I was ten years old."

"So, who all has superpowers around here then?" John asks, somewhat confused that he actually doesn't know. Yes, he knows Hedda can heal people, and he's seen Ennah... kind of float whenever she meditates, but they can't be the only ones.

Teer says, "I have the ability to follow people in my mind in the present and to see images of the future."

Avrid speaks up, "Yes, Teer was the one who sent me to find you."

"You did?" Rodney says, looking at Teer. John finally feels the puzzle piece slide into place. He had wondered about why Avrid had even been out there in the first place. Especially because he's not exactly the type to enjoy long hikes.

"Because I knew you were coming that day, and I knew where you would be in the field," Teer says. She sounds a little guilty and John wonders whether she had been hoping Avrid was killed or something. Why not send multiple people?

Rodney doesn't seem to pick up on it though, and says, "That's great! Very, eh, thoughtful of you." Then adds, sounding excited, "So, what else can you see?"

John coughs. Oh no.

She ducks her head and blushes "I have known John's face, and that he would be here with me, all my life."

"Oh..." Rodney says, frowning.

A soft breeze stirs them and Rodney shivers and pressed a little closer. John presses back, a distant part of his mind hoping that that's saying enough; that Rodney will know because of it.

He doesn't know whether Teer catches the movement from the corner of her eye or whether she somehow senses his discomfort, but she says ,"I am getting cold, we must dance some more!" She pulls Laia and a protesting Avrid with her.



Rodney falls silent and John enjoys the moment of just sitting there, drifting a little. He's really somewhat drunk, he thinks. Yeah.

Rodney is playing with a fringe of the blanket, his fingers tracing it again and again. It's almost hypnotic. After a while, he speaks up "So, why aren't you sleeping with her?"

John blinks. What?

"She's hot. I mean, you know I prefer blondes, but she is your type, isn't she? Brunette, definite Ascending-potential? Plus, she obviously wants you, so you probably should, you know..." Rodney waves his hand in a gesture that looks like go forth and procreate and raises his eyes at John expectantly.

John frowns, realizing he's supposed to say something. He finally settles on, "She's nice," and Rodney gives him a look he can't read.

"Then maybe you should dance with her?"

John shakes his head and tries to keep his voice light, "I'm a lousy dancer- you know." They'd had to dance together only once, a Harvest Festival a lot like this one only there was slow dancing and no diplomatic way they could get out of it, so... Rodney had complained about bruised toes for days afterwards.

"Yeah, I remember," Rodney says absently, moving, and suddenly his head leans heavy onto John's shoulder. John feels the warm weight and he's already adjusting, changing his posture before he can think about it. Rodney isn't asleep, he knows. (The man can't sleep without snoring.) But he's apparently extremely maudlin none the less, still tracing the blanket. John wonders how much he has had to drink. And vows to not move again. Ever.

"You can... you can get used to this, right?" Rodney asks warmly into his neck, and John shudders with the sensation of it. God. His stomach clenches with nerves. If he's asking what he thinks he's...

"I mean, if we're in here..." Rodney leaves a pause there.

"What- forever?" John asks quietly, because, yes, of course Rodney would be talking about that. They don't talk about that either, certainly not when it's like this, in the middle of the first time there's been dancing, the first time there's anything like a relaxed atmosphere in the entire Cloister, the first time that he feels like, yes, yes he could be happy.

"Well," Rodney says, motioning sadly. "It's not like, I mean, I don't know if we'll ever... yes?" And John lets his own head bump against Rodney's.

He waits a second to make sure there are no more words coming, but there aren't. So he says, "Look, it doesn't matter, ok? Just... relax."

Rodney shifts a little, makes himself more comfortable. John wonders how long he had been gathering the courage to say just that. Somehow along the line, Rodney had started suffering the illusion he was the only one responsible for getting out whatever they got themselves into. By the time he's done thinking that Rodney is snoring away happily.

John tries to stick it out as long as he can, but after ten or so minutes his shoulder starts cramping.

He flicks Rodney's ear. "Rodney!"

Rodney startles, his hand landing warmly on John's thigh. "Huh?"

John tries very hard not to think about the hand, although it feels extremely good. "Time for bed."

"What? But the party isn't over yet?" Rodney whines, but John knows it's a token protest as he's already getting up.

They say goodbye to everyone and walk back in silence. Rodney's arm is heavy around his shoulder, and John tries hard not to enjoy it too much.

After John dumps Rodney onto his own mattress and lies down, he tries to focus on something else than the sense memory of Rodney leaning against him, warm and pliant. It's hard, but his last thoughts before falling asleep are whether this counts as having met superheroes. And whether his ten-year old self could have ever seen this coming.



He wakes up with a start, to the worst sound imaginable. A roar. An honest to god roar, and within seconds he's on his feet with his knife in his hand.

Rodney isn't there anymore.

He doesn't think, just runs outside. He can't see the Beast, but he can see Hedda standing in the middle of the village square, a bucket of water next to her fallen to the ground. He reaches her within seconds, and she wraps her arms around him and tries to hide her face somewhere near his stomach. She's trembling.

"It's okay," he whispers. "It's okay, it's okay..." Then from around the corner Rodney comes running, face flushed, wearing his wrinkled clothes from the night before, but his face is clear, gaze firmly locking with John's as he comes to stand next to him. John feels his grip on the knife tighten and the Beast roars again. They can do this. Maybe.

"It's close," Rodney says, and John has to look at him again. He has a kind of kitchen knife with him, and John has no idea how he had had time to find that- did he run to the kitchens first? But he doesn't seem afraid. Not even a little.

Right behind the trees there's a shadow, a shimmer, a rustling of leaves and yes, that's it.

"It's here," John says, and he wishes for his gun. Not that it would have helped much, he knows, but just holding it, firing it would feel so satisfying right now.

"It's never come inside the Cloister!" Hedda whispers, and then "John, I'm scared."

John knows why she's here; she wants to be there in case he gets hurt, so she can heal him right away. "Go inside," he says, trying to sound gentle. He can't fight with her this close and she knows it. But she shakes her head and doesn't move, still physically attaching herself to him.

"Do it. Go now!" he says, and he must be transmitting some of that in his tone because finally she lets go and runs, up the stairs, into Avrid's house where he can catch a glimpse of Teer reaching out to pull her inside.

The Beast roars again. Rodney looks grim, and John knows he must be going over the million ways he had always thought he would die and then almost sees him decide that "eaten by beast" is somehow better than "slow death at old age in Cloister". Then, with a look at John, Rodney yells "OK, but I'm warning you- we have knives!" and John can't help it, he laughs.

He laughs out loud, and then adds "Yeah- and there's two of us!" Rodney, his hand with the kitchen knife raised and visibly shaking now, grins at him.

Suddenly, John doesn't mind dying that much either. Not if it's like this. Next to Rodney.

And that's when it attacks.



Waking up is even harder this time around, words weaving a spell on his mind, keeping him under.

"Fear not what is not real..."

His limbs seem to be made of lead, even breathing is hard, like there are heavy blankets draped over him, like he's immersed in a gloriously warm liquid.

"... never was and never will be." The words sound tender, as if they're somehow both important and soothing. They never falter.

"What is real, always was, cannot be destroyed."

He slips into sleep again and he tries to hold onto them, hold onto the meaning, but he can't.

When he wakes the first thing he realises is that Hedda is healing him, holding his hand, but he's too weak to push her away. She's not even looking at him, her eyes closed. She's sitting on the floor, holding Rodney's hand in her other. Her lips look blue, her skin translucent. There's a bright light around her, almost too bright to look at and she's making soft sounds, as if she's in pain. It takes him a moment to notice she's actually crying, thick drops rolling over her cheeks, onto his hand, her robes.

"Hedda..." he tries to speak, her name coming out slurred.

Her eyes flick open, she's startled, and before he knows it there's a soothing mist in his mind again, making him forget.



The next time he opens his eyes its dark. He's warm everywhere, comfortably so, and when he looks to his left he can see why. Rodney's mattress is pulled up right next to his bed and Rodney is sleeping half on that, half on John's bed, his face pillowed on his own arms and John's thigh. Hedda is curled up over John's feet like a cat, her curls spreading over his legs, breathing softly in and out.

John feels something warm and strange move through him while looking at them. They're... he doesn't have the words to tell them, but he knows he would have done the same. They're... important.

They both must be exhausted because when he gets up and slowly pulls his various limbs from under them, neither of them move.

The village is deserted again, but there still is a light burning in Avrid's house and when John knocks softly on the door it opens almost immediately. "John!" Avrid says, looking worried. "Are you healed? Should you not be resting?"

He shrugs. Yeah, maybe he should be resting. But he feels well enough to walk (okay, his legs feel a little weak and there's a very disturbing amount of dried blood stuck to his shirt, but he can walk, so that's what important).

"Is everyone else fine?"

"Yes," Avrid says. "Yes, after it... I've never seen such bravery. Were it not for you and Rodney, all may have been lost."

"Well, I don't remember winning this time either," John says, feeling pretty jilted. Seriously, as nice as dying with Rodney by his side was and all, he would much rather not do that again. Also, there might be a limit to how many back-from-the-death passes he was allowed to have exactly. So yes, he is pissed.

"What the hell's the matter with you people? Why didn't you help us?" he asks and Avrid looks taken aback, actually startled that John dares to ask why.

"Violence is not the path to Ascension," Avrid recites, and oh hell, John did not just get out of bed after a near-death experience to listen to that crap.

"There's a pretty big difference between violence and self-defence!" he says, but Avrid shakes his head. "We are very close to Ascension, John- all of us. If we leave the path, it may be lost to us forever."

"Well, everything may be lost to you forever unless you stand up to that damned thing!" John says, but he knows he's not getting anywhere. Also, he's starting to feel like he's going to pass out again.

Avrid looks at him for a moment, then says, "I must sleep now."

John leaves.



He doesn't remember crawling back into bed, but, when he wakes later, Hedda is sleeping on Rodney's mattress, still curled into a small ball, looking as if she had lost several years and pounds overnight. Rodney is sitting next to her.

John tries to sit up stiffly. He's dizzy again, but he still notices the flash of relief on Rodney's face. He wants to whisper, but Rodney interrupts him, full-out, "Don't bother, she won't wake up."

"What?" he asks, "Is she ok?"

"Yeah," Rodney says, "She was out for several days last time, remember? I asked Teer to look at her and she says she should be fine."

He takes a couple deep breaths (dizzy, seriously, what was it with that Beast and it's bizarre invincibility? This time he didn't even remember getting one strike in.) and he looks at Rodney. He looks fine, if tired. And unshaven. At least he is in clean clothes. "Were you..." Hit? Maimed? Killed?, his brain supplies. "...out?"

Rodney nods once, but doesn't say anything. John wonders how bad it was.



Fall has come on fully now, the mornings and evenings slowly growing colder and the trees starting to loose their leaves to the chill winds coming over the mountains.

John is on his way to build an enclosure the sheep will be kept in during winter (the last one had been destroyed in spring), when he sees Rodney bodily being kicked out of a house, his loud voice protesting, "I'm an Atheist- honestly what do you want!" and a grumbling reply of "...must learn not to speak unless it improves on silence."

John pauses. Rodney walks towards him and makes an exasperated gesture, "Morons".

John nods. He knows. The night before Avrid had led the dinner prayer, which had included words like "devotion" and "cower before the ultimate power." Some of them started skipping meals for days on end, opting to fast and meditate instead, thinking it would keep the Beast at bay. Telling them it was a really bad idea didn't seem to help.

"Look, I have a plan," John says.

"What?" Rodney frowns, clearly petulant that he wasn't informed of this the second John thought of it.

"You'll see."

Rodney starts to sputter. "Tomorrow morning," John adds.



He's running, over the grass, up the hill, and yes, he's there finally, he sees Rodney looking at him and he lets himself fall down on his back, breathing heavily.

He'd had to wake Rodney up sacrilegiously early, when he was still too tired to do anything but grunt (and proving that years of conditioning really did die hard, ask for coffee) to get him out here. He was bundled up warmly and had been timing his sprints for the last hour. John's quite sure he has broken the record (his legs feel like lead and his lungs feel like they're about to burst), but instead of telling him the time Rodney says, "I'm hungry."

Then, after a long pause, "Seriously Sheppard, how is this the plan?"

John is still panting, but that doesn't mean he can't glare.

Rodney hands him a water bottle and he drinks eagerly, letting some of it roll over his chin, drip into his collar. After a few moments, he says, "The Beast is strong, but it makes a lot of noise. If I'm fast enough, I can outrun it."

Rodney gives him a look similar to all the others he had given him before potential suicide missions. It doesn't look any better upside down.

"We don't have a choice," John says, "not if we don't want to spend our entire lives here."

Rodney looks at him. "And you think this will work how, exactly?"

"I can find our weapons to defend myself and Zelenka will have figured out what the problem is by now, so hopefully he sent through a note, a computer, a scanner, anything so we can get to the power source, or get out, either really," John explains, steeling himself for the counter arguments that are bound to come.

In the next few days, Rodney keeps up a constant stream of "idiotic" and "moronic" and "Really, risking your life like that? What, is it a fetish or something?" But he doesn't come up with anything else they can do, so John keeps on running and Rodney keeps on going with him.

He doesn't really need Rodney to time him every day, but he doesn't tell him that. He likes the company. After a few days Rodney becomes a grudgingly enthusiastic coach. He seems to enjoy telling John to do better and "Oh come on, don't tell me you wouldn't run faster than that if there was an actual Beast behind you!"



Three weeks in, John realises with a start he's going to miss their mornings together, whether the plan actually succeeds or fails spectacularly. Because there's something in getting to wake Rodney now, in going out there together, in walking closely on the way back, when he's exhausted and Rodney is still sleepy and cranky, their shoulders bumping occasionally.

They usually split up for the rest of the day, John doing more physical labor and meditation, Rodney helping out with smaller chores and, surprisingly, taking care of the sheep.

The prayer room is always full now, people chanting, singing, murmuring left and right. John religiously tries to think of the jumpers again. He tries to remember their circuits, their power, their speed, but often he just ends up thinking of the plan and what might go wrong.



He's not surprised that one evening, three days before sprint-through-Beast-territory day Rodney keeps on talking even though their candles are out. They often talk at night, idle talk of Atlantis, their friends, musings about steaks or pizza. It's easier to pretend in the dark, John thinks. Easier to think that they might see it all again some day.

But this time, Rodney gets serious right away.

"Look, I want to come with you," he says. "I mean, I know the running and all is the plan, but you might need me there if Radek has sent anything about the power source and well, just, you... need me."

John waits a second. "I know you're going to say no," Rodney says, pointing at him. And then he looks at something over John's shoulder. John thinks the wall might read 7584662-74561 with lots of pi signs there. "Just, well, please?"

"Anything that happens I can handle, ok?" John tries to sound confident, eyes cast down and glad the room's too dark for Rodney to notice.

Rodney sputters.

"Rodney," he says. "You're not..." He trails off, frustrated. Fast enough, he wants to say. I can't lose you, he wants to say. Instead, he says, "No," and Rodney sighs.

They stay silent for the rest of the evening.



That is why the next night (one and a half days before B-day, as they had started calling it) he lays out his map, steals some food from the kitchen, and leaves at the first sign of light. He's crossing the border of what is considered Cloister-territory by the time Rodney wakes up.

Deciding not to waste energy, he doesn't actually run, just tries to keep out of sight whenever possible. It takes him some search-work to find their weapons, with the changing of seasons the bushes and trees look different, but eventually he finds Rodney's revolver near the tree line. His P-90 isn't near it though, or near where they had been attacked, so after a couple more minutes he calls that one a loss.

The trip back to the portal is longer and significantly more up-hill than he remembers, but when he reaches the first of the stone arrows he had made, still practically undisturbed, he takes a moment to regret the fact no one had even used them. Part of him had been expecting Ronon to turn up after a couple days, the head of the Beast casually slung over his shoulder. Or well, dragging behind him.

When he reaches the boulders where he and Rodney had rested, he stops and eats his dark bread with honey and one of the asparagus things. He tries to remember Rodney's face, the way he had looked that morning almost six months ago now, but all that comes to mind is the version he sees every day, the tanned, slightly less agitated and caffeinated Rodney. He doesn't know which one he prefers.

His heart is actually beating fast when he makes it up to the mountain ridge and back into the cave. It's not from the effort (although he doesn't really think he's been in this good a shape since he was, well, twenty), but he's anxious to see. That the barrier is unblocked, maybe. Or a note. Or a bunch of consecutive notes, informing them of how they're working on the problem, instructing him to turn off the power source somewhere. Or maybe a couple books for Rodney, or a crate of C-4 (to blow up the mountain surrounding the portal).

When he does get there, he sees the rock arrow they made and some power bar wrappers. His heart drops. There's nothing else there, unless... In the shadows, obscured by the glow of the barrier, he sees a dark shape and falls to his knees.

It's Teyla's backpack, its straps much shorter than Ronon's, and there are two canteens of water and four MRE's inside. Some aspirin, antibiotics, wet wipes. Nothing else.

He's so angry he almost considers shooting the barrier again, if not for the fact that Rodney had already done it and that his team is most likely on the other side. So close.

He sits by the portal for a long time, trying to imagine them out there. Elizabeth looking closely at the writing, Teyla, worried, Ronon to the side, still holding his stunner, just in case, Zelenka closest to the barrier, cursing in Czech, trying to understand.

He spends a long moment longing for someone to step through, any of them, just to see their face again, to tell them what happened, what it's like. To tell them he needs them to find a solution now, as fast as they can, because they're losing their lives in here. Piece by piece, they're losing what they had. He can't even remember what the faces of some of his marines look like. The sound of Elizabeth's voice. The feeling of sleeping in his own bed.

He tries to imagine them going back to Atlantis five years from now. Ten. Twenty. Both of them grey and old, unfamiliar with everyone who had just spent the last couple days or weeks trying to get them out. It wouldn't be theirs anymore. It would be over.

He picks up the rocks that form the arrow and throws them one by one into the barrier, again and again. Some of them hit him as they rebound, but he doesn't care. Maybe they make ripples on the outside as well. Maybe something will happen. Maybe.

It doesn't.

Eventually he gathers them all again and makes a new arrow. He hoists the backpack onto his back and leaves at as much of a dead run he can manage.

He needs to get home. Home to Rodney.

And isn't that ironic? They couldn't be farther away from Atlantis, and he's sure the first thing Rodney'll do is yell at him for leaving without saying anything, but somehow, without him even noticing, Rodney's become home.

He doesn't run into the Beast. Not even when it gets so dark he has trouble seeing, and has to rely on the artificial stars to keep going in the right direction. Not even when the wind gets so cold he starts shivering even while running. It's hours past midnight when he stumbles back into the Cloister, and it's only when he gets close enough that he can see that the strange flickering is actually a candle left burning in their window. Rodney.

He opens the door as quietly as possible and immediately relaxes when he hears Rodney's trademark snores. He's fine. He lets the backpack fall onto the ground, takes off his boots, his shirt, he's halfway into undressing when he realises with a start there's someone on his bed. He can see curls and an orange dress in the candle light and for a second convinced it's Hedda, maybe she came over to wait for him, but when she rolls over and mumbles in her sleep he can see it's Teer. Lying on his bed. Sleeping.

He thinks about waking her, but waking her will also wake Rodney and he's just too tired to go there. He thinks about lying down next to her, only it's probably not... the proper thing to do. She looks faintly worried, even in sleep.

He's also exhausted, still shivering; everything has the strange glow of beyond consciousness, his legs feel like lead. So he doesn't even think from that point on. Rodney is still snoring, lying rolled to one side of his mattress. John gets down on his knees, opens the covers and slides next to him. He has one moment to feel warmth and a touch of skin as his leg bumps into Rodney's, then he's asleep.



He wakes up once to darkness, a heavy arm draped over his side and the faint sound of snoring in his ear, and drops back to sleep almost immediately. The next time he opens his eyes it's to the feel of a hand on his shoulder and Rodney's voice, louder than it really needs to be, in his ear.

"Sheppard?" He leans into the touch, sighing a little. He feels wonderful, warm and dreamy and tired still. He smiles. "Sheppard? Come on, wake up!"

He opens his eyes. "What...?"

Rodney is sitting on his knees next to him, looking at him with a mix of annoyance, curiosity and something John finds hard to name. "Did you find it? Did you see anything?"

The previous day slams back into him. "No. Just the backpack." Looking at the table, he can see Rodney has already opened it and eaten two of the MRE's. He blinks at the sunlight shining on their table. "What time is it?"

"Afternoon," Rodney says. And then adds, "She left this morning."

"Oh," John says, remembering Teer.

"She could see you... and she was worried," Rodney says, looking at the table, trying his best not to look anything like he might have been, too, and John suddenly gets it. "Oh," he says again.

"Yes well..." Rodney snaps, and that somehow seems to have settled it.



John is on his way over to Teer's before he realises he should probably have apologised to Rodney for crawling into his bed in the middle of the night. Or for running off a day early. Or for not finding anything. But he thinks they might be a little beyond that now anyway.



He finds Teer in her hut. He's never actually been inside before, but it doesn't look any different from all the others. He doesn't know what he had expected. For it to be pink, maybe. Girly. Ancient-inspired. Only in this society pink seems to be for everyone, so he's not sure that analogy holds up.

She's sitting on the floor, meditating, but she looks up at him expectantly as soon as he comes in. There are a dozen or so candles burning behind her, giving her an odd glow.

He closes the door behind him and tries to make sure his tone is gentle. "You didn't have to wait up for me yesterday." It's a great intro, one he'd spent some time thinking about, in fact.

"You were gone for a day," she says, and she sounds oddly defiant. In that moment, she reminds him a little of Rodney. He goes to sit down next to her.

"I found one of our weapons," he says "And my friends... they sent some supplies through." He thinks of the backpack. It isn't much. "Were you..." he asks, and then realises he doesn't have a word for 'using your superpowers to track me'.

She looks at him. "I followed your journey in my mind. I wanted to... we care for you as well, John."

He nods uncomfortably. "Can you tell me, my friends, are they..."

She closes her eyes. "They number six." John breathes and tries to think. Teyla and Ronon are still there, obviously, and they called for Elizabeth and Zelenka, which means that they needed Lorne to pilot the jumper, and who else... Maybe Beckett, in case there was a medical emergency. Although they must be really worried to bring him, John thinks, but then again, they probably are.

"They have been an image in the back of my mind for some time now," Teer says, and she looks conflicted.

John realises she's probably never seen any humans besides everyone in the Cloister. He wonders how they must look to her. "Can you contact them?" he asks, trying not to sound as desperate as he feels.

"I cannot." She sounds almost sad now, and he thinks he gets it. How hard it must be to see all that and never be able to do anything.

"What else do you see? Do you... do you know when, eh, if Rodney and I are getting out of here?"

"I do not see those things." She shakes her head. "But John, I do see..."

"What?" he asks, expecting the worst.

"You are the one," she says, looking at him intensely.

John feels the urge to cough. He has heard this too many times before. And it's never true. He'd thought... he'd thought she didn't care about that anymore. "The one what?"

"The one who will lead us to Ascension," she says softly.

"Oh!" he says, feeling utterly relieved. And a little stupid. And, the more he thinks about it, strangely put upon. "How do you think I will..."

But Teer talks over him, "You don't have to know how. You just have to trust that you will." And oh, okay. That he can do. Probably. He nods.

And when the silence stretches on, he gets up again.

"I, ah, well... thanks," he says.

She smiles at him, open and bright. "You're welcome, John."

He almost falls over the steps outside in his haste to get away.



As the days get shorter and colder, John begins to wonder if he hadn't run through a field of something mildly hallucinogenic, to have hurried back to the Cloister the way he did. He's more bored than he's ever been (and for having been in the military for a long time, that's a bold statement) and Rodney isn't any better off. He refuses to join John outside anymore, saying it's useless anyhow. He starts to grow grumpy again and, what frightens John even more, stays silent and pensive for hours at a time.

But then one day something changes because he does go out. He recruits Avrid to help him on some project, and spends a couple days in the kitchen, stirring pots and smelling disturbingly like glue when he creeps into his bed at night, leaving John in the dark. When John wakes up on the fifth day though, Rodney has worked through the night and there is a large amount of something looking like paper drying on their table and floors. It looks uneven and tends to crumble when not handed well, but it's real paper.

John says, "Oh wow- cool!"

But Rodney just goes, "Well, it would have been easier with leather but they wouldn't let me kill enough sheep." And seems to mean it.

After that, Rodney spends hours and hours writing. Even at night he bends over his work and scribbles on by candle light. John can't figure out whether he does it because he likes it or because he has nothing else to do, but regardless, in true Rodney style he's a man obsessed. John takes advantage of the times he goes to get food to look at what he writes, but contrary to what he'd expected, they're not calculations. There are diagrams of ZPM's, but mainly surprisingly realistic representations of Atlantis with notes like "infirmary not central enough in event of contagion?" and "try Ancient polymer to make stronger windows in control room". Rodney's actually working.

One day John finds an error and before he thinks about it, he's holding a piece of charcoal in his hand and he's writing "No, that hallway goes left, look" with a little arrow next to it.

The next morning there's a blank piece of paper on the foot end of his bed, freshly sharpened charcoal next to it. He starts sketching out plans to increase the productivity of the armory before he's even really awake enough to realise he had been thinking about it. He ends up skipping breakfast and lunch, and, when Rodney comes back, it's to find him at the table, surrounded by a dozen or so papers.

They never talk about it.

About a month in, Rodney moves on from Atlantis to abstract calculations that are beyond John and Rodney's first collection of papers gets bound up by a string and set on what John mentally starts referring to as their "book shelf".

It's Hedda's reply to Teer's inquiry at dinner, "What are they doing inside all day?" "They put charcoal to a paper and make little scribbles!" that makes John realise he has never seen anything written down in the entire Cloister. None of these people know how to write.

Which causes him, on a dreary afternoon, to sit down at the table and guide Teer's hand in a drawn-out writing of her name. "That's 'Teer'!" he says, trying to make her see it.

"But this does not look like me?" she says, frowning, and he's stuck explaining the concept of making a sound into a sign for the rest of the afternoon. Next is Hedda, and she takes to the concept surprisingly fast, writing "Hedda Hedda Hedda Hedda Hedda" on every piece of paper she can find, again and again.

That night she comes by and says, "Teach me more!" So he shows her "Teer" and "Avrid" and, on her request, "John" and "Rodney".

Where he thought it would blow over easily, just one afternoon of entertainment, more and more people keep on coming by asking him to teach them their name signs and it becomes something of a local pastime.

Teer never tries again, saying "when we are Ascended we will know all we ever need to," but the others seem to think it's fun. As soon the word gets out that Rodney knows how to write as well, and that in fact he does a lot of it, they all go to look at him, stare over his shoulder while he does it, page through his "book" spelling out the letters while Rodney yells at them a lot. John grins.

When Hedda comes by a couple days later and hands John a paper saying "John is a crazy man with gravity-defying hair" and a drawing that goes with it John laughs and laughs until Heger comes over to offer him some water.

Without TV or computers, places to go or people to meet (besides the twenty they are stuck with), it's hard to fill up the days. Where summer was busy with an endless supply of chores, the late fall is not, and once the idea of immediate death starts to wear off everyone has spare time and is looking for something to do with it. There's a lot of basket-weaving and wool-spinning and knitting and coloring of fabrics, but John isn't really emotionally invested in any of that.

So he learns how to play the prayer-beads game. And the next day, he uses old rock-hard pieces of bread and some wood to make something that resembles an interplanetary Monopoly game. He's well into his third game against the calm Laia when she gleefully exclaims "You are on my planet! You must pay!" and he realises he might be teaching them capitalism.

Hanging around the kitchens so much comes in handy otherwise as well. The first time he suggests they cut up the potatoes and fry them, Teer does it for him reluctantly. After Rodney's sounds of absolute happiness though, John starts getting creative. He makes sheep burgers by grinding up the meat and putting it in between two slices of dark brown bread. Then "pizza" from dough he doesn't let rise and tomatoes and sheep cheese. It doesn't taste anything like the way it's supposed to, but neither of them care.

The day he bakes something a lot like cupcakes and puts them on Rodney's desk Rodney gives him such an adoring look that John's afraid he might actually kiss him. He doesn't, but his heart continues to beat wildly whenever he thinks of that moment.

It's November by the time the weather gets so bad they have to heat constantly, and John has to forgo his running in order to chop increasing amounts of wood every morning.

It rains a lot, and the wind gets hard and icy-cold. At night, they can hear it howl around their cabin, gusts of wind coming in between the cracks in the wood.

They both get two sheep-skins sown together to put on top of their bedding, and winter clothes. There are thickly knitted jumpers, dark blue for Rodney and green for John, and new pants and shirts. Almost all of Rodney's are in some hue of blue and John suddenly remembers the bright orange sweater he had seen Rodney in, once upon a time. He misses it.



The first snow falls late that month.

John is meditating with the others when suddenly an excited murmur starts going around. That alone is strange enough for him to open his eyes, but the fact that they all scramble up to open the curtains (the frilly summer ones replaced by heavy woven constructions to keep out the cold now) means that there is something special going on.

The effect is immediate. The normally heavy, smoky air becomes chilly and clean, and he sees it. A snowflake. And then another, and another, until the sky is a flurry of rapidly moving specks.

John takes one look at Hedda's thrilled face before saying, "Come on!" And taking her hand. They jump off the platform together, then reach their hands out to the sky and let the flakes fall on their face, try to catch some on the tips of their tongue.

"Did it ever do this where you came from, John?" she yells, her voice high with excitement.

He says, "Not often..." And then, without thinking, "But where Rodney comes from it does all winter."

Her eyes get big. "Then we must go get him!"

John doesn't make an effort to stop her as she runs off, but is surprised to see her return within minutes, holding the hand of a grumbling Rodney.

"So... snow huh?" Rodney says, trying to sound dismissive.

Hedda doesn't take the hint and beams at him, "Just like in your homeland, Rodney!"

"What- Canada?" Rodney asks, and John grins and jogs up to meet them. Rodney seems annoyed enough, but John knows he wouldn't have come if he didn't actually want to. As Hedda goes to join the others back on the platform in looking at the snow (he can hear her eager voice telling them, "Rodney comes from Can-ada where it snows, but John does not"). He smiles at Rodney.

"She thought you'd like it," he says, and shrugs.

"Oh yeah... it's... snow," Rodney says dryly, and John laughs. There's a snowflake caught in Rodney's eyelashes. His eyes seem impossibly blue against the slowly turning white background. John feels himself flush with the now familiar feeling. He could... he could reach out, touch Rodney, kiss him, and maybe blame it on excitement later. For well, snow.

Without thinking about it, he takes a step closer, his hand brushing Rodney's sleeve. Rodney looks even better up close. He hasn't shaved this morning, John sees, and he looks at his lips. They look chapped from cold, but still soft... And that's when he notices that, oh god.

Rodney is leaning in.

They're both breathing hard, huffs of white frozen breath moving between them. Rodney's eyes are soft and unfocused and there's only a couple inches of space between them... John swallows and tilts his face toward Rodney's.

He's starting to close his eyes when...

Rodney pulls away sharply, a bright blush spreading from his ears to his cheeks.

John takes a startled step back in response and says, "Oh..." his voice sounding strange even to his own ears. But Rodney interrupts him, looking like he's ready to either run away or deny everything. "So, I thought, maybe, now you're not meditating anyway, you could take a look at that one sketch? The one about the chair? Because I could use your input on some of the modifications, and..." John tunes him out for a moment, the knot in his stomach growing stronger.

Rodney leaned in. He knows he had. And now... he's rambling. While looking strangely red still. John blinks. All he can think about is leaning back in and give it another try because it had been close, so close and maybe...

But then Rodney turns around and briskly starts walking back to their cabin. John spends a couple more confused seconds blinking into nothingness before he realises he really needs to catch up to him. When he does, Rodney gives him a quick, sideways look, but starts talking again. "So if my calculations are right, and they are right, obviously, that could increase the output of drones by 4.2%, which isn't a great improvement, I grant you, but it's good enough to..."

John leaves a careful distance between the two of them, his mind racing.

Later he isn't able to remember a single thing Rodney talked about that afternoon. Only the constant spinning of, "Kiss. I wanted to kiss him and did he almost kiss me? Did he? Does he know? God, he knows." in his head.

But Rodney seemed determined to not say a single word about it and to leave John absolutely no space to say anything at all. If it had been anyone else doing it wouldn't have worked, but, when it came to talking, Rodney could keep it up for hours. That included asking John's opinions on things he never would have before, so John actually had to focus to keep up. The discussion on quantum gravity theory goes on partway through the night and finally he has to tell Rodney to shut up so he can go to sleep. Which he does.



The next morning Rodney seems as gruff as usual so John assumes it was just a moment of strangeness between them, something that would never happen again.

Only everything seems different now. He's oddly aware of where Rodney is. Walking around their table, going out to Avrid's, coming back with the bread rolls John likes, talking idly about something he overheard Heger say, sitting down to write down something brilliantly important and John can't seem to stop looking at him. Which explains why he drops a log of wood on his foot. Runs into the bed twice. And almost burns himself while lighting the fire.

And, what's even worse, he can't stop doing it.

He bumps into Rodney four and a half times before its even time for lunch. And Rodney never seems to realise it happens, which somehow makes it even worse because it causes him to play through that one moment of contact in his mind again and again, and wonder whether, well... whether he should try something more obvious.

The bad thing is, he'd gotten so used to the idea that there was no way Rodney would ever want to kiss him, that now it maybe-possibly-almost had happened, he had no idea what to do. On Atlantis, he probably would have asked Teyla because she knows these kinds of things. But here he's sort of on his own.

So he watches Rodney some more.

And after four long days of dropping household objects and multiple bruises and strange looks from the people around them, he comes to the conclusion it really had been a one-time, possibly even imagined incident. Rodney seems perfectly normal, if a little prone to blushing and babbling, but then again he always was, so it's fine. Fine.

John does admit to himself that he feels sorry over it. Just the thought that it could have happened had been strangely exciting. And now it was over. So he should think of other things.




Two days later John is sitting at the Cloister table, idly playing with a piece of wood; he's thinking about maybe making a model airplane (hell, it always worked to take his mind of things when he was going through puberty, why not now?). But he's going to have to convince the others it would be an absolute necessity so they'll help. There are people working around him, someone doing dishes, Aran, the sort-of-blacksmith, is repairing a bucket. Teer is stirring what smells like a bean stew, and Avrid is sitting two seats over knitting a pink scarf, a look of intense concentration on his face. John's about to speak up to the room in general ('Hey, anyone ever seen an airplane?'), when Hedda slides up next to him.

"So how come Rodney lived in a different land than you did John?" she asks, and he can see Teer and Avrid look up. John takes a deep breath. Talking to any of them about Earth is always difficult because while he's explaining one thing another pops up that they've never heard about, then something else, and by the end of the story he's usually lost everyone with at least one person reminding him that when they Ascend they'll know everything. Plus, most of the concepts they just don't get. Like the idea that people have jobs, or money, or travel ("But why would you go to another place when you already are somewhere?").

He thinks for a moment, then says, "We lived on a big planet. And my house was far away from his, in a different land."

"And that land would have snow storms, just like we do here?" Hedda asks.

John nods and tries to think of what else he could say about Canada that would make any sense to her. He doubts she can imagine what a moose looks like. A really big brown sheep with antlers? "Where I lived, we had thunderstorms though," he says, eyeing the piece of wood again. Maybe if he takes something to sand it down with.

"A thunderstorm?" she asks, and he can tell it was the wrong thing to say right away. She sounds excited. "What's a thunder-storm?"

And oh, he hadn't thought about the fact he hadn't seen or heard one even once in his time in the Cloister. Probably because the Ancients didn't think it was useful in any way. Although there certainly was enough wind and rain and snow going around to make up for that. "It's thunder and lightning. Giant bolts of electricity shooting down from the sky."

"That sounds scary," she says, impressed, and Avrid is nodding avidly from behind her, his knitting needles bopping up and down. John knows they're probably imagining something Beast-like. Only it can come at any time. Out of the sky. To attack them with bolts of fire.

So he says, "Well, it is a little scary, but it's also very cool." Hedda takes a moment to digest that new part of information, and he goes on, "It's OK to be scared you know. When I was a kid, we used to have storms that shook the house. Scared me half to death." And then I would crawl into bed with Terry, the boy next door he doesn't add. They don't need to know everything.

Teer, looking over from the fire, smiles encouragingly. "When we are Ascended, we will experience such things, Hedda." She doesn't always agree with Hedda's curiosity, John knows, and he wonders why. It's not like it'll harm her. These days it's Hedda more often than not who explains to the others what Earth is like. Or reads their names for them, or patiently teaches them how to write, or explains to them that pizza needs a lot of cheese.

He looks at Hedda, "Hell, if you're Ascended, you can make thunderstorms!" She beams at him. Sometimes he wants to talk to them about actually experiencing life, about aiming to see a real thunderstorm, about thinking about something else than dying for a change. But they'd never get it through their minds and at this point, he's not sure he should try anymore. They're all stuck together; there's no use to tell them to go out there and live when even he himself can't.

Hedda is just about to ask something else when Rodney walks in, a gust of cold wind making them all huddle into their sweaters and scarves. There are snowflakes stuck to Rodney's shoulders. Also, he's wearing mittens, which really shouldn't look that cute on a grown man. John tries very hard not to stare.

"Hey you, eh...Aran? Where is that wood-sanding tool?" Rodney asks. Aran eyes Rodney suspiciously and points at a collection of tools in the corner.

John speaks up, "Hey, I wanted to..." but Rodney has already grabbed it and is gone again, a flurry of snowflakes whooshing in when he opens the door and closes it behind him.

John rolls his eyes. He would have liked it if Rodney would have said "Hi," at least. Only, he never would have before, so that would have meant something was different and would have spiralled him right back into wondering whether... John sighs and turns the piece of wood in his hands over again. He should make a plane. He's well into imagining an ME-262 or an F-11, like he had hanging on his bedroom ceiling when he was twelve and what it would take to make one, when he realises Hedda is looking at him again.

So he grins. "Hedda, do you know what an airplane is?"



When he gets home that night his head is pleasantly full with memories of flying, the feeling of a plane under his hands, the sky. Rodney is writing at the table again, but as soon John comes in he puts his work away. There's some dust in his hair and a couple wood shavings stuck to his sleeve, but before John can ask he starts talking again, about numbers and chemic reactions and John lets himself be carried on the stream of words all the way to his bed.



The next day John notices Rodney's fingers look red and that his right middle finger has a blister on it. The day after that, there's a small cut from a knife on his thumb.

He forgets about it easily enough though when, that night, Rodney undresses and matter-of-factly starts washing himself in front of their fire. It makes perfect sense of course, in the morning he'd put a bucket of snow close to the fire and at night it was warm enough to use as washing water, but that still didn't mean it was ok, just like that. For one thing, John started dropping things again.

And it didn't stop at once. Rodney starts doing it every night.

The first few times, John tries to look away and appear interested in other things, but it isn't easy. After a week he gives up and just tries to make sure he's in bed before Rodney starts undressing, so he can lie on his stomach and pretend to be asleep, willing his hard-on away. But even when he doesn't watch, presses his face into the pillow, his eyes closed, it doesn't make it any easier. Because he knows Rodney is there, naked, dripping water all over himself, completely oblivious to how incredibly much John wants to touch him.

The worst part is, now that he has a fairly accurate knowledge of Rodney's various parts (with daily repeat viewings), plus the vague memory of an almost-something, it gets impossible not to think about wanting him. All the time.

Which is why after another of the "Rodney's naked! So naked!" moments, John can't fall asleep. He's just too turned on. He waits until Rodney is most definitely asleep, snoring away, before he dares to touch himself. It doesn't take long, but god, it's amazing. Rodney sleeps close to the fire and although they take care to put it mostly out at night, a circle of rocks around it preventing it from ever spreading, there still are warm embers glowing in the dark. Which means he has a clear view of Rodney's sleeping face.

It's incredibly hot and it takes him only a couple strokes of extreme guilt and pleasure, trying to stay as quiet as possible, before he comes all over his hand and bedspread.

He falls asleep easily after that. But when the next day he spends long minutes during meditation contemplating what could have happened if he would have woken Rodney, he gets so hard he has to stay there and sit very still for another thirty minutes in order not to mentally scar Hedda for life.



And that's why when a week later John wakes up to the feeling of his mattress dipping under Rodney's weight and a warm hand on his arm he comes awake with a start. Instead of showing it though, he levels his breathing, keeps his eyes closed and thanks the military with all his heart. Never again would he claim that those six weeks of stealth training hadn't given him anything useful.

Rodney doesn't move, just sits there for a while. And then places something next to John's head.

With a hum he gets up again, and John mentally counts to the 411th prime number he can think of before pretending to wake up, groaning a little and yawning. Rodney is shaving near the piece of almost-glass they have, and doesn't look up. Not even when John eyes the strange thing sitting next to him.

"Rodney?" he says. It's a piece of cloth, with surprisingly square corners. "There's something here."

"Hmmm," Rodney says.

John sits up and runs his hand through his hair and over his face. "It's not... dangerous... is it?"

Rodney is looking at himself in the mirror, concentrating on not slicing a major artery with the Cloister's version of a razor. His voice sounds perfectly level when he says, "Well, open it."

John raises his eyebrows. "Okaaaaaay..." but he's already feeling a stab of anticipation. A present? Really?

He lifts it onto his lap, and it's quite heavy. Decidedly square, but with some loose and moving parts on top. The cloth is tied close with several knots, and he takes his time to untie them. Rodney is still pretending not to look, but John can tell he's listening for any sort of reaction.

As the cloth falls open the various pieces spill over his lap and roll onto the blankets. He's stuck holding only the square, and he's silent for a moment. "A chess board?"

Oh wow. "You got us a chess board?" He knows he's smiling like a kid on Christmas, but he doesn't care because he had been wishing for one for months. And Rodney leaves the glass and his half shaven beard for what it is to come over, looking at John's reaction "Yes. I ah, I did."

"Rodney!" John says, trying to convey the absolute gratitude he's feeling. He picks up a piece and turns it around in his hand. "This is beautiful!"

Rodney comes to sit on the bed next to him, his face still foamy, but none of that hiding his enormous grin. "Yeah, Heger had to teach me how to carve the wood, but it came out quite well, don't you think? I mean, I know the next one probably will be better because I made a lot of mistakes going in but..."

Next one. John is stuck just looking at it, tracing his hands over the wood, feeling the fine edges. The board is in a pale wood, with carvings of towers, the squares not quite square but almost of Ancient-looking design, leaves and stargate symbols threading all over the field. The pieces are incredibly detailed. Also, the queen is shaped like a ZPM. "You made this?"

"Eh. Yes," Rodney says, looking at his hands. "So, you know, happy birthday."

"It's my birthday?" John asks, frowning, because he had been keeping track of the months in a distant sort of way, but his birthday? "Really?"

"Well," Rodney says, immediately warming up to the subject, "with the time dilation it's hard to say exactly, but I've been keeping track of how many days we're here and counting from the date it was when we stepped through. Of course, you stepped through two days after me, so actually your birthday for me was two days ago, but from your perspective..."

"It's my birthday," John nods, getting it. And then he grins, "Cool!"

Rodney is still smiling at him, and together they sort of just look at each other and smile for a couple minutes while John's stomach does strange back flips. And he knows he's acting like a twelve-year old girl, but he doesn't care because Rodney made him a chess board.



After eating the breakfast brought to them in festive child-labor style by Hedda ("I don't understand why today we celebrate that you were born John. Have your mother and father not celebrated your birth a long time ago?"), they set the board up and play.

John had been thinking to take the game to the kitchens the way they did in Atlantis, playing in the mess, but after clearing the food Rodney sets it up on their little table and John doesn't complain. It might be nice to spend some time away from the others anyway.

Soon he's well into a drawn-out battle trying to keep his defences up against Rodney, who had obviously been thinking about his strategies for some time because John doesn't remember him being this good before. John makes a mental note to go look for those papers Rodney has squirreled away under his mattress.

More so than he has seen him in months, Rodney is in his element. Rodney wins the first game relatively easily, grinning and boasting about his absolute genius.

By the second John is up to speed and they're tied again. It takes a large part of the afternoon before John admits defeat. Part of why he has trouble thinking of strategy though, is that he can't help but study the board. It's gorgeous but simple, and some of the designs are angled strangely or don't quite add up, but it's obvious that this is something Rodney must have been working on for weeks.

On the third game Rodney gets close to losing and there's a lot of yelling and insulting and smirking and John feels absolutely, completely content. Its dark outside by the time Rodney puts his king down and John realises he's still in yesterday's clothes.

And then, as their post-game conversation dies down, John remembers with a shock that he hasn't thanked Rodney. While he probably wants to be thanked, at least a little.

So John gets out of his seat under the pretence of stretching his legs a little and walks around the table up to Rodney. Rodney had been sitting down, putting the last of the pieces away, but as John gets closer he gets up suddenly and they bump into each other.

John stands his ground, puts his one hand on Rodney's shoulder and pulls Rodney into an awkward half-hug. "So..." John says, looking at the table, "thank you."

Rodney flushes, and steps away. "Ah, well, yes," he says, making a gesture John doesn't even try to understand, and suddenly something snaps inside of him.

He looks at Rodney, breathing fast. Rodney looks back, eyes wide.

And John puts his hand on Rodney's neck, pulls him in and presses their lips together.



At first, nothing happens. For a terrifying, utterly silent moment neither of them moves. John's heart is beating hard and fast, and where they're pressed together he can feel Rodney tremble, or maybe that's just him. He has a long moment to think, "Oh fuck" and "No" and "Ok, you've screwed it up now Sheppard".

Then Rodney opens his lips a bit and John can't help but make a sound in the back of his throat because it's so soft, so gentle.

Rodney hesitates at first, but after a few seconds pulls him in firmly. Where they're pressed together John can feel the heat of Rodney's skin, he can smell him and he tries to remember every hesitation, every change in pressure and position and the way Rodney holds him close as if he's going to run away.

As they break apart slowly John looks at him. Rodney is blushing still and doesn't seem capable of speech just yet. John wants to put his arms around him and pull him close again, touch his face until he's smiling.

There's silence though, and someone has to say something, so he says, "I, ah, I'm sorry if that wasn't... but it's just, with the chessboard, and..." He realises he is babbling, which is something he's quite sure that before he met Rodney he never would have been capable of.

Rodney stares at him, eyes shining. "John..."

There's a quick knock on the door. "John? Rodney? Are you ready for dinner?"

Worst luck in the whole damn galaxy, John thinks, and takes a step away from Rodney. Rodney spins around, knocking some of the chess pieces around. Avrid peers around the corner.

"Teer has made fried potatoes because it is your birth-day John." Avrid doesn't sound as if he's noticed anything, but John doesn't trust himself to make eye contact anyway. He throws a quick look at Rodney, who's studying the wall with rapt attention, and says, "Yeah, we'll be there in a minute."

There's a moment of silence and then the door closes. John risks a glance at it, but Avrid is gone, so he must not have picked up on the tension blanketing the room, either. He breathes out and rubs his neck nervously. "Well..."

But Rodney interrupts him. "Look, I wanted say..." He looks open and unsure and scared all at once standing there, and John just wants to kiss him again. A lot. Rodney hesitates, and then adds, "It's not... I ah, I wanted to kiss you before. In the snow."

John blinks. "Really?"

Rodney puts his chin out. "Well, yes."

"Oh that's... ok." John says, slowly trying to get his brain back online from "Kissing! Must kiss Rodney." To "Oh, really?"

Rodney smiles slowly, and they're looking at each other again. The fire is burning brightly in the corner. The shadows of the oil lamp on the table flicker over Rodney's face. John wants to forget about dinner and just spend the next hour tracing Rodney's jaw with his fingers.

"We have to go, or they'll come looking..." Rodney says uncertainly.

John nods. "Yeah, that's... we should."



Outside its bitter cold, a couple inches of snow on the ground, stars twinkling overhead. The air is sharp, needle pricks of freezing wind, and it almost hurts to breathe. They slow down when they come to a slippery patch of ice and although they're not actually touching John lets his fingers brush Rodney's.

John knows he's smiling stupidly again, but he doesn't care because Rodney's answering smile is the same. By the time they reach the door he's decided it's been the best birthday ever already and since they're locked up in a small space with Ancient-worshippers and no running water, electricity or means of escape, that's saying a lot. A whole lot, John thinks.



When they open the door to the kitchens there's a shock of warmth and noise and the smell of food. The whole Cloister is there, and where a couple of months ago twenty people talking through each other wouldn't have seemed like that much, for the Cloister it's an incredible amount of noise and excitement. None of them really understand the idea behind a birthday, but the rumour of what Rodney has given John is enough to enforce that it's special and that they all need to be happy. So they are.

As soon as John and Rodney clear the door, Hedda yells, "He's here!", and runs up with a garland of dried flowers to put on his head. John sits down and lets her, thinking that never in his life he has worn so many flowers in his hair as in the last two years of Pegasus exploring. Strangely, that's one thing all the planets do seem to have in common.

As the pea soup and dried tomatoes and sheep burgers get put on the table, Rodney takes the chair next to him and says, pointing at John's hair, "They're awfully fond of making you look like a flower-child aren't they?"

And John teases back effortlessly, "Well, at least some people have more hair than others," which makes Rodney fume.

So yes, he's somewhat distracted when Teer says, "You should lead the prayer today John."

He feels his mouth drop open. Prayers? What prayers? He thinks in a panic, but then Rodney elbows him in the side, none too gently, and he stands up, only remembering to close his mouth when he sees their eyes fixed on his with rapid attention.

He raises his hands up to the sky hesitantly, his mind frantically going through all the times he has seen Teer or Avrid do this. Teer gives him an encouraging smile, so he figures he's on the right track, but then he catches a glimpse of Rodney grinning into the salad, and he has to try hard to focus on something else than Rodney's mouth.

"Brothers and sisters!" He's pretty sure that's how it goes. Or at least he has seen a priest say it once. On TV. Avrid nods and eagerly takes Agar's and Laia's hands. John wonders where the prayer beads are.

"We are gathered here today to celebrate." My birthday, he thinks about adding, then crushes that thought as a laugh threatens to escape. "Life," he adds firmly. "We are here to celebrate life."

Rodney holds his hand out to Hedda and John's mind shorts out, picturing where that hand might have gotten to if they hadn't been interrupted.

"And, uh, winter, and family, and friends." He can still feel the touch of Rodney's fingers tracing over his back. "It'll be spring soon," he adds. It seems important.

"...And also the Ascended." He doesn't know why he's celebrating them, but he has a feeling they'd all be upset if he didn't at least gave them a mention. He still thinks it's weird to pray to someone they're hoping to be one day. "The Ascended" are literally Hedda's mom and brother and Teer's parents and Heger's uncle. Wouldn't it be easier to just pray for Ascension, instead of talking to the few relatives who had managed it?

"That they'll be happy, and eh... non-vengeful, and bless us. A lot." He sits back down. His cheeks feel like they are radiating warmth. Rodney looks like he's trying very hard not to laugh, and John kicks his leg under the table

Teer stands up. "Beautiful words John." Everyone nods. He can't tell whether they're being serious or sarcastic. A couple of months ago he never would have thought anyone in the Cloister was capable of sarcasm, but there's little enough sustained exposure to Rodney can't accomplish.

Teer stands up, and adds a few more clichés about the enormous goodness of the Ancients, and when she sits down it's obviously the signal for everyone to start eating.

John eats his fried potatoes, the weak soup, and the crunchy, unidentifiable vegetables, and tries to appear pleased and grateful, which isn't that hard because whenever he looks at Rodney he starts smiling and he can't seem to stop. Smiles that don't have anything to do with the food, but they don't need to know that.

Rodney throws him small but obvious looks all the way through dinner, and John has to fight not to take Rodney's hand and lace his fingers through it. He tries not to let the huge, hopeful feeling in his chest show too much on his face but he's pretty sure it's probably obvious to anyone looking their way.



He wants to leave right after dinner, but Hedda nags him for another game of planet Monopoly. Then Avrid talks on and on about how once he's Ascended, he too is going to celebrate the day of his birth, so it's after midnight by the time they're walking back home.

Although he hasn't done that much that day, it's been exhausting and he's happy for a few minutes of quiet and cold as he and Rodney walk back to their cabin, the frozen snow creaking under their boots.

Once they're inside, John makes sure he sits down on his bed before Rodney takes off his shirt because his hands are twitching to... and he's not sure he's allowed to. He thinks so, but... Rodney keeps throwing him little looks, but doesn't say anything. He's half-hard, John can see.

He's looking at Rodney's back, dripping with water when suddenly Rodney turns around. He seems shy. "You're ah... looking."

"Yes," John says. His mouth is dry.

"Oh," Rodney says, and he swallows, "Look, if you're regretting..." and John is on his feet before he can even think about it.

His hand touches the warmth of Rodney's naked back and Rodney leans into it. He looks weary. For the first time John realises Rodney must not really be sure of him as well. But Rodney stills him with the press of his fingers on his bare arm, and it's so familiar John has to swallow against the feeling of fear and arousal that's threatening to make him spin.

"I don't," he says, "I really want to..." he waves a hand towards the middle of Rodney's chest, and Rodney seems to understand he's not going to be capable of explaining anything more, and so he hesitantly raises his hand to cup John's jaw. They kiss, and it's slow and leisurely and everything John never had expected to get from Rodney.

They end up on the bed easily.



He leans in to kiss only they misjudge and end up bumping noses, and Rodney snorts at that and says, "Kirk- not so much, huh?" John wants to hit him over the head, but instead just leans again and kisses him more thoroughly.

That kiss changes into the next, and the next, and suddenly they're still, lying side to side on Rodney's mattress, Rodney's thumb rubbing the hairs in his neck into a slow burn.

John's hands shake, because it's insane to be close like this, and have Rodney looking at him so intensely he thinks he might be able to come from the heat in Rodney's eyes alone. He doesn't, but when Rodney puts a tentative hand on John's thigh he has to swallow, because God.

John shifts, so Rodney's warm hand ends up covering the fabric of his crotch, and he traces his own hand over Rodney's side, pulling the edge of his pants down as he encounters it. Rodney's face is light and shadow as the fire light plays over it, his eyes dark and shining.

John says, "You... yeah?", his voice hoarse and Rodney rolls his eyes, "Yes, very much yes, do you have to ask?" But he looks ridiculously pleased regardless. John lets his hand go further so he can wrap his fingers around Rodney's dick and Rodney does the same to him, pulling his pants down in the process.

The touch of Rodney's hand is incredible, it's sweaty and warm and he's deliberately moving slow. John just wants to watch his face, trace his skin, focus on the soft slide of his dick between his fingers. They're both shaking, both on edge and the friction is setting off sparks behind his eyelids, but he struggles to keep them open, to see Rodney start breathing hard, come apart beautifully, a dark flush on his cheeks, shuddering, coming over John's hand.

John puts his face in Rodney's neck, tastes the skin there, feeling warmth everywhere because this is right, this is Rodney, this is beyond... As Rodney's hand tightens around him again, his breath hitches, beyond perfect.

He's coming too, his orgasm pulled from the tips of his toes. He closes his eyes, feels shocks of pleasure ripple trough him still as Rodney puts his hand on his cheek "John... God you're...", but John doesn't let him finish, pulls him into a kiss again, and another, because he doesn't want it to be over, he doesn't even want to leave that moment, Rodney, the happiness that's rushing through him. Home.

Eventually Rodney stills him with a "John..." again and he feels reassured by it. He traces Rodney's jaw, his lips, Rodney's hands moving over his back, shivery comfort getting slower, leaving him warm and sated as they fall asleep.



The next day John wakes at dawn. He can hear the snow, changed into sheets of rain now, ticking against their window, rolling off the roof. He's incredibly warm.

Rodney isn't wrapped around him; he's rolled to the side, taking up most of the pillow. John's face is pressed into his clammy naked shoulder.

Rodney keeps on snoring softly, even when John slowly crawls from under the blankets. They forgot to put any wood on the fire the night before, and now it's gone out. The air is icy cold. The wooden floorboards creak as he makes a quick two-step dive for last night's clothes. Very cold. There's still a forgotten chess piece lying on the ground.

He gets into his socks and boots, re-starts the fire with some small branches and wood chips, and then goes outside. The sky is gray behind the thick low-hanging clouds. The rain makes a soft sound as it falls. The ground is still frozen in places, but mostly muddy, puddles coming up everywhere. He breathes.

He walks over to the lean-to and starts chopping some wood. The work is calming and he feels the images in his mind settle into something gentle, soft. It's easy to think to the raise and fall of the axe, to the sound of the wood splitting, echoing all over the Cloister, the houses still quiet.

When he comes back he's frozen cold and dripping all over the place. And he feels another wave of calm, of happiness when he crawls back in next to Rodney. He closes his eyes, but soon opens them again because Rodney is sleeping right next to him and even aware of how silly it is, he really needs to watch a little. Rodney had turned around in his absence, and now there is even less room, John is balancing on the edge of the mattress. But he doesn't mind. It's not like either of them are used to sharing the bed with someone else anyway.

Also, Rodney's mattress is so many times better than his. Which totally explains why he hadn't complained about it and demanded a bed a long time ago, John thinks. He should have guessed.

The rain gets even harder outside. Rodney mumbles something in his sleep.

John watches him, and keeps on smiling.



Eventually he gets up again because he has promised to help repair a leak in Teer's roof. He doesn't wake Rodney.

As the temperature drops around noon the rain becomes slushy snow again, white when it's falling but as soon as it hits the ground it only adds to the puddles there.

Johns spends the whole day feeling strangely quiet inside, as if he's waiting for something yet undefined. When he arrives at Teer's fixing her roof turns out to be somewhat of a group activity, a busy gathering of people laughing and working. He knows he's not quite paying attention, but he can't help it. Not even when he manages to bash his thumb twice and Teer gives him a strange look. He wonders whether she can tell.

It's only after he falls from the ladder and pulls some of the roof with him that they send him off to meditate. He's ok with it; at least it's quiet there.

He always makes sure to wear a thick sweater, but even as he sits down the temperature seems incredibly cold. Ennah is singing softly, something he recognises as an Ancient poem.

He doesn't know how long he's in there. He forces himself to think about the puddle jumpers, but it's no good; every time he thinks of a circuit buzzing to life under his hands, he feels the sweaty slide of Rodney's skin. He tries to think of watery blue halls and sleek gray engineering, but it fades into bright blue eyes and a crooked mouth.

John feels the quiet break up into something smaller, something more complicated as someone sits down beside him and shifts uneasily on the pillow. He opens his eyes and smiles slowly at Rodney. "It's not gonna bite you," he says, feeling his smile get bigger and tip over into something he's sure he hasn't given anyone since junior high.

Rodney is wearing a blue jumper, and one of Avrid's pink scarves. He looks determined, and a little shy. "I just thought I... well, they say try everything at least once and whatnot, so..." He waves a hand around at the room and squirms again.

"Just close your eyes."

Rodney looks confused, "But what do you think of? I mean, I know you're not supposed to think at all, but..."

John, before he can think about it too much, grabs Rodney's hand in his. "Think of something good." Rodney looks baffled, but he closes his eyes. When John looks again a couple minutes later there's a small smile playing around his lips.

Holding Rodney's hand should feel strange, John thinks. Only it never has. Rodney doesn't hold tight, so their hands are lying on the ground, fingertips touching, leaning into each other. Rodney's hands are warm. They always are. John feels the warmth of that touch spread through his entire body, until he feels completely relaxed.

After long minutes, John speaks up, the weight of the words small flutters in his mind. "It would be okay."

Rodney's eyes open suddenly, and he realises he needs to say more. "To, what you asked at the harvest festival, if we're in here..."

Rodney nods, "I remember."

"I'd be okay," John says, and he's afraid it's one of the most profound things he has ever said.



That night they curl up together on Rodney's mattress in the dark. John takes his sheep skins as well and they pile them all on top of them while the snow keeps on falling outside. They have sex again, and it's real, John thinks. It's really real.

They're lying there, in the glow of the fire, when Rodney says, sounding pensive, "Maybe we don't have to."

"What do you mean?" John says, not really paying attention as he's sort of busy tracing Rodney's chest, feeling the little hairs jump back against his fingers again and again.

"On the... being here forever." John looks up, and Rodney makes a gesture. "Look, I think it's the Beast."

"What?" John asks, frowning, because one, seriously, why are they talking about the Beast now? And two, does he have a plan? Really?

He sits up while Rodney says, "It's the only variable. It's the only thing that ever changes around here, the only thing that's programmed to be completely unpredictable. I don't know if it's a hologram, or artificial intelligence, but..." He sounds excited.

John tries to think. "It's solid. I've touched it. It can touch us," he says, remembering the feeling of its claws ripping into his back, the sight of the wounds it had gouged into the pale and too-vulnerable skin he'd just been considering kissing on Rodney's chest.

"I've tried to think of any other possibilities, and there just aren't any. I think it's the key to getting out of here," Rodney says, a definite edge to his voice.

John frowns. "And you want to, what, talk to it?"

"Well, no," Rodney says. "Just... figure out how it works, so okay, yes, maybe talk to it."

"Rodney..." John says and yes, it's an idea, but it's going to be dangerous, even if they can manage it somehow, if there's a chance that it's...

"I don't... we need to get out of here before we die, ok?" Rodney says, carefully not looking John in the eye. "Either it's the Beast that is going to kill us or old age, but the thought that..."

John nods, but his voice sounds carefully level when he says, "Atlantis is out there."

Rodney looks at him. "Yeah."



So the next day, John goes to ask Teer.

She welcomes him serenely and now he knows she must have known he was coming because there are two cups of steaming chamomile tea ready at her table.

Teer greets him with a short nod, "Are you well?"

She's sitting behind her loom, fingers dancing over the threads easily even as she looks up. Her hair is tied back with an orange ribbon and, even though there is a bright fire burning in the corner, she's wearing a thick sweater over her dress. She looks young that way. Relaxed.

John nods back, and takes one of the cups and hands her the other. Chamomile is supposed to be calming, he knows (courtesy of Hedda, who had suggested it to Rodney on multiple occasions). He takes a sip and goes to sit down on the pillow on the floor.

There's a bucket standing in the corner, and he can hear a drip as some of the melting snow falls down through the crack in her roof. "Still not fixed completely?" he asks, feeling like he probably should apologise for his obvious roof-fixing inabilities.

"No," she laughs "Aran tried again this morning, but it does not seem to want to be fixed." She seems oddly careless about it, he thinks. There are large bushels of dried flowers and herbs hanging from her roof and a small tapestry he had never noticed before, depicting stars, hanging next to her window.

"Did you make that?" he asks and points.

She shakes her head, "My mother did." Her fingers are weaving so fast he can hardly see what she's doing. She apparently doesn't need to see either, as she looks at him again and gets to the point, "What did you want to ask me, John?"

He smiles. Yeah, it's probably obvious he didn't come to get a better look at her tapestry-making. "Are we hiding?" he asks, and he tries to project that he needs her to answer truthfully.

Her fingers still, and she takes a sip from her tea, "Hiding from what?"

"You know the answer to that," he says, because god, by now she must know that he too can see through her act of "Beast? What Beast?" and "As long as we stay inside the Cloister we are happy." He can see her take a moment before she replies.

"You mean the Beast." She sounds serious now.

John knows it's not the best subject to broach with anyone. People are scared, they don't want to talk about it because they think that'll somehow make the Beast appear, as if that somehow will make it more real. But he wouldn't ask if he didn't need to know. "Yes, I do. Now I sure feel grateful that it hasn't attacked all winter, but Rodney thinks it's..."

Her gaze suddenly goes distant, her hands tremble as she puts the tea on the ground, spilling a little over her hand. John wants to reach out to help her, but she closes her eyes and sits there, unmoving, and he doesn't know what to do.

He looks at her, and waits to see whether she's going to faint or something, and he's just about to speak up ("Do you need me to go get Hedda?") when she finally speaks.

She sounds startled, "He will fight it."

John feels the worry on the back of his mind jump right to the foreground. "What? Rodney's going to fight it? When?"

"He will," she opens her eyes, "and when he does you must be there John."



Winter passes slowly. It leaves the fields looking dead and dark as the snow clears, the trees just skeletons, but there's a watery sun, and eventually some traces of green appearing on the ground.

John, in those next two months, laughs, a lot. When Avrid trips and drops twenty freshly baked rolls. When Hedda sneaks up on Rodney and tries to tickle him. When Laia tells her very first dirty joke. When Rodney whispers something completely inappropriate into his ear.

The air gets a little warmer and when the first of this year's lambs is born they have a spontaneous party. Rodney is given the honor of naming the animal, and although John lobbies for "Chewbacca" they have an "Einstein" in their middle now. John is only moderately surprised when Hedda perks up with "Oh yes, he is the one who invented the theory of relativity, is he not?" and Rodney gives her a proud look.



They haul the big table out of the kitchen and set it back up in the village square at the beginning of March, and start making plans for a spring celebration.

Wandering out from mediation that noon, John can see that they have started without him. He shrugs and sits down.

"Where is Rodney?" Avrid asks, passing him a plate of something that looks suspiciously like alfalfa sprouts. "Does he not plan to join us?"

Rodney, John knows, is out checking on the Cloister's shield technology, but John doesn't want to get the others on his case again. "He's... writing, you know how he gets." He takes a big helping of the furry-looking greens, and gives Avrid a smile. "More for us!" he adds, thankful that Rodney isn't there to share his opinion of the food with the whole group.

John takes a bite of his food, and he's chewing vigorously as Hedda throws a paper plane across the table, giggling as it neatly surpasses the soup and makes a dive towards John's plate.

He laughs at her as he scoops it out of the air. "Good job! But see, if you make the tip just so..." he folds the paper again, "'ll fly in a straight line." She smiles and he winks "Easier to aim," while pointing covertly towards Avrid's soup.

He throws it back to her, but before she can take a shot at ruining Avrid's dinner, Teer takes a sharp intake of breath. Everyone stops what they are doing to look at her, and her eyes go blank again. She's gripping the table so hard her knuckles turn white. And then she looks up. "John, now. The Beast is nearly upon him."

John doesn't hesitate for a second. He runs.

Rodney has the gun with him; thank the Ascended, gods, god, whatever, but he can't help but think, What if I'm too late. What if...

As he sprints closer, zigzagging between the trees, branches slapping into his face, he can hear a roar from between the trees. And Rodney's scream.

When arrives at the field, he can see Rodney right away, crouching down, still holding his gun, not bleeding, scrambling up. He looks immensely relieved to see John and John has a moment to feel something similar, then the roar comes from behind him.

They both turn around sharply and John has a moment to see the Beast flicker into shape before he takes a leap up onto its back. Like last time, it's hard to hold on and he doesn't have a knife, not anything, but he can try to strangle it. He holds on as well as he can, and it does have something like a neck. He can feel its breath hot and wet over his hands, and then John falls to the ground face-first.

He grunts from between the long grass and Rodney runs up to help him up. The Beast hadn't thrown him, it just disappeared right from under him.

"It disappeared," Rodney says, touching his shoulder gently, making sure he's all right. "It's not real- John, it's not real, it's an illusion of some sort, you have to..."

"I have to what?" John says while scanning the area again, because yes, nice to know and all, but even if it is invisible, the thing is still out there. They can hear it roar near the edge of the forest.

And then there is movement behind the trees. Rodney points his gun, but it's Teer who steps out, holding Hedda's hand. Behind her is Avrid, prayer beads raised to his heart. And then Heger, and Laia, and Aran, everyone they've come to know in the long past months.

John's first instinct is to yell to them to get away because no, they don't all need to get killed here, except they seem determined. Afraid, certainly, but sure.

The Beast roars again, and everyone looks around nervously. They can't see anything, but then the next moment it's there. It's huge. In the couple seconds since they last saw the Beast it's grown to tower over them, huge and terrifying.

Avrid is shaking as a leaf, but as he comes closer he says, "We've come to stand with you, whatever happens."

"You... really? You?" Rodney says, disbelief dripping from his voice, and he looks at John. John shrugs without taking his eyes off the Beast. Can't really argue with that. Although he wonders how much use it's going to be. Apparently nobody thought to bring a knife.

The Beast roars again and everyone falls silent, the huge creature towering above them.

And finally it's Ennah, the pale thin woman who hasn't spoken more than ten words in the whole time that John has known her, who looks at the Beast and says calmly, "We are not afraid of you."

John hears the Beast roar in response, an angry, bloodthirsty sound that seems to vibrate through his bones. The villagers pale but hold their ground. "We are not afraid," Aran says firmly, and Avrid repeats the phrase, sounding somewhat less than sure.

"We are not afraid", the rest of the villagers echo, and Teer steps forward.

"The Beast is of our own creation and it is long past time we sent it away." She looks fierce and determined. In that moment, John feels another pang of respect for her.

The villagers walk closer to the Beast and form a circle around it. Hedda's clear voice says, "Fear not what is not real, what never was and never will be. What is real, always was, and cannot be destroyed."

They all start murmuring, louder and louder. Rodney is looking at John for answers but John shakes his head and motions, keep your gun up! Rodney gives him a panicked look. Yes, ok, not going to help much, but he doesn't know what else to say. He steps closer to Rodney, just in case.

The sound of their voices is building up to a crescendo now, "Not afraid, not afraid, not afraid!" and the Beast gives a huge final roar and disappears.

John waits for it to appear again, but it doesn't.

The silence is deafening. Suddenly they can hear the wind in the trees, a bird that starts singing. The villagers break the circle and smile.

Rodney's voice interrupts the silence sharply, "That's it?! That's all it took?!" He gestures with something that looks like frustration, and John feels very inclined to agree. They could have done this months ago!

Teer speaks up, "You were right. Both of you." She looks at Rodney as well. "We were hiding. The Beast was the final burden we had to shed. You both gave us the change and the courage necessary to face it."

John thinks oh, and hopes that nothing of what he's feeling shows on his face. If that's all it took, he could have had them all Ascended months ago as well.

Teer holds out her hand, palm up. "Now you can come with us."

John is startled, they are offering Ascension? He glances over at Rodney, intending to share his surprise, but Rodney is staring at him with a stricken look in his eyes.

Rodney couldn't possibly be thinking that... "No," he says to Teer. "Thanks, but..."

Rodney interrupts, "You're giving up eternal enlightenment?"

"It just doesn't sound like fun, Rodney" John says, and he makes sure he sounds petulant. Rodney gives him another of his 'you idiot' looks.

In the background, the villagers have started to glow and John is reminded uncomfortably of Chaya. He can hear them calling "Goodbye!" and "May you be blessed!" as their edges blur, and Heger waves at him. They grow into brighter and brighter tendrils of light, and then just... float away.

Teer, Avrid, and Hedda stay for a little while more, but John realises it's only to say goodbye. They're going. Rodney, standing beside him, seems to come to the same conclusion because he says, "Oh no. You're all going, and you're leaving us what, here? No-no-no-no-no you can't do that!"

But Teer smiles softly, "We will keep the portal open for you until you are gone, Rodney."

"You will?" John says, quite aware that there's an edge to his voice. It's not that he doesn't believe her. Just, well, that it's damn important.

Hedda nods and grins, "You can go home again now!" She looks relieved.

Rodney frowns at her, and John thinks he's going to ask her whether they could have just let them go a long time ago and didn't. Actually, he's wondering that himself. But Rodney says to Hedda, "Come with us."

Rodney looks resolute, his mouth set in an unhappy line. "Look, I know you want to go, but you're a kid, there's so much more of real life to do first! There's... I don't know, boys? Science?"

He throws a desperate look at John, and John jumps in, "Reading, you can read real books. And have friends your age."

Rodney nods. "Just... Come with us to Atlantis first; live a little, why not?"

Hedda seems torn for a moment, then shakes her head. "I won't leave my family. I can't. But you have taught me much Rodney." She hugs him and Rodney pets her back awkwardly.

"And you too, John." John steps up to receive his hug, and she wraps her arms around his stomach and holds on tight. For a moment he's incredibly glad Rodney thought to ask Hedda to come with them because he wouldn't have realized before she was gone, before they couldn't give her a chance anymore. He feels a pressure in his throat build. It's her choice, he knows, but it's so...

When she lets go she takes Teer's hand again, then Avrid's. They all close their eyes and seem to focus for a moment. As they start to glow, John feels the urge to shout something like, "Be safe!" to them before they go, but he just looks on silently.

He hadn't even liked most of them. But they'd been... Friends, almost. Curious like children about stories from Atlantis, Earth. Endlessly patient, kind, forgiving of what he was sure must have been about a million wrong things they did and said.

They glow brighter and brighter, then slowly float away into nothingness.

There's a lump is his throat, Rodney is looking on the edge of tears next to him. He had really thought...



They start the walk back to the Cloister slowly. Rodney is still holding onto his gun, looking around sporadically in case the Beast decides to jump on them from behind the trees. John knows it's really gone.

When they arrive back the houses don't seem any different. The sun is still shining. The huge table is still standing in the middle of the square, half-finished plates on top of it. John feels fine until he sees the paper airplane Hedda had thrown lying in the grass, trampled on. Then he has to fight the urge to throw up.

Instead, he goes into the kitchens and makes sure the oven's off. Rodney sets the sheep and chickens free. Together they go back to their cabin and John stuffs his backpack with a change of clothes. Enough food and water for several days, he thinks. Just in case.

He leaves the wooden airplane that's dangling from their ceiling. Maybe a kid will live here again, some day.

Rodney takes their "books," a huge amount of loose papers, the chess board, and pieces.

In a last moment John takes the sheep skins that are on his bed. He knows they're probably not going to be there another night, but it's colder up on the mountain. He rolls them up and secures them with ropes to his backpack, and sees Rodney do the same with his.

And then they're leaving.



The trip back to the portal seems long. The sun hides behind clouds when they're halfway through the Sanctuary and near evening it starts to rain, a slow drizzle that wets the grass and makes it slippery, makes the landscape seem alien again and seeps into their clothes. It gets dark fast, and when they are finally climbing, slipping on the wet rocks and loose dirt, both of them are too exhausted to say much.

"Over here," John says, pointing towards the last of their arrows before the ridge. Rodney is looking weary, his hair plastered flat to his skull by the rain. John wants to kiss away the drop of rainwater making its way down his nose anyway.

They step over the rocks and into the side of the mountain and finally they are in the cavern where the portal is. It's dry, at least, but that's all.

John remembers the deep burn for freedom, the frustration from the last time he was here. It seems like forever ago.

They both look at the portal. It's the same inky black it always was, and if any of the now-Ascended villagers are there, ready to lift the barrier, John can't see them. Rodney is standing close next to him, looking back and forth between the barrier and John while saying, "It doesn't look different, does it?"

"No," John says. While all the way over he had thought they would step through right away, now they're actually here all he wants is to suggest is that they build a fire, have some food, crawl under the blankets together.

It's Rodney who says, "I guess we should..." and he waves at the portal.

John nods, once. Yeah, they really have to.

He gets ready to step through, but Rodney stops him. "Don't... we should go together."

John has a moment to think it over, and then holds his hand out to Rodney. Rodney looks at it, and then takes it, decisively. The portal is too small to go through side by side, so John places himself first. He takes one last look at the cave. At Rodney's determined face.

And he steps through.



The pull on his arm is intense for a fraction of a second, but then he's lying facedown in the grass with Rodney half on top of him, still holding his hand.

It's not the same feeling as before- there's no pain- but it's disorienting nonetheless. It had been utterly dark and cold on the other side, and now he's blinking up into the sun as it filters through the trees, wrinkling his nose against the musky smell of some kind of flower.

He cranes his head to the side to see around Rodney, and all he can see are shoes. Multiple pairs of Atlantis-issued shoes and then an equal number of hands, pulling them to their feet, pulling them apart.

After the hands, there are words; Radek says something warm and earnest in Czech while his hands are on John's arm, helping him up. Ronon says, "Yeah! You made it!" while hauling Rodney to his feet, grinning brightly, and Carson mumbles something like thank ye god while wiping away a tear.

Elizabeth is standing off to the side, still holding her notebook, and John sees a flash of her looking relieved, before Teyla pulls him in, presses her forehead against his and whispers, "You have returned!". Over her shoulder, John can see Lorne grinning like a maniac and he hopes it's not just the thought of not being stuck with all the paperwork.

It's absolutely overwhelming.



John can hear Rodney say, "We never thought we'd see any of you again. We... missed you." Elizabeth looks startled at that, and John realises with a start that Rodney must sound very different from the version they're used to.

Ronon bumps his shoulder into Rodney and says, "Yeah, well, it was only a couple of hours for us, so ..." and Rodney manages to look both vaguely disgruntled at the insult and pleased at the same time. John smiles at him.

Teyla steps in and says, "Ronon!" and then adds, smiling warmly, "We were all quite worried about you as well."

Carson looks up from collecting his backpack, still looking suspiciously red around the eyes, "Of course we were!" and walks over to put his arms around Rodney. He seems surprised when Rodney returns the embrace and holds on tight.

Elizabeth says, "We're just sorry we couldn't..."

And John looks at all of them, takes them all in, tries to imprint their images in his memory. He has already forgotten so much, and he's never doing it again. Never.

It's Radek who looks him up and down, and John suddenly realises he's in home spun linen pants and a knitted sweater, carrying sheep skins in the middle of the jungle. "How long where you in there?"

John starts to answer, "Around nine..." But Rodney interrupts from somewhere over Carson's shoulder, "Nine months, three weeks, four days. Or well, for me that is."

"Yeah, two days less for me," John says, and they all stare at him.

"You were in there for..." Elizabeth asks, but Radek interrupts. "Yes, yes, I thought it was a time dilation field, but how..." and he's off, directing his questions at Rodney.

John looks at Elizabeth. "We're just glad to be back."



There are two jumpers, the one they originally came in and the one Lorne flew, so John doesn't have to argue very hard before they let him fly his own. He feels a surge of giddy excitement as soon as he steps into the jumper and feels the hum of technology all around, sees the consoles all lit up. He sits down in the pilot's chair and he feels like whooping because finally it feels right again.

Rodney stays in the back during the entire flight, having an almost scarily quiet conversation with Zelenka about the effects of time dilation, but John can tell he is absent-mindedly touching his hand to the wall of the jumper again and again, as if reassuring himself it's real.

It only really hits him when they land in the jumper bay and he can see flashes of blue and grey walls that he's home. Home. The air smells strangely like the ocean, a tang of salt and something sharper beneath that, maybe a mix of tech and dust, and John wonders why he has never noticed, and maybe, whether that's why people always seem to be able to tell they live in the city of the Ancients.

Carson leads the way to his infirmary right away, and John promises the jumpers he'll be back before following him obediently down the hall.

The infirmary looks disappointingly familiar, and smells of antiseptic. The sheep skins they're carrying and their sweaters are still vaguely damp. When Carson suggests that, since there are no pressing injuries, maybe they should use the infirmary's showers and change into scrubs first, John wonders whether they smell, too.

Rodney starts making excited noises as soon as Carson says the word "shower", so John agrees. John's legs are still protesting from the full-out run he did to get to Rodney in time and the hiking that followed. In the Cloister it would be a couple hours past midnight now and he feels tired. He figures a shower will be great.

Rodney, way ahead of him, strips down as soon as they get in the large shower room and is already moaning under the water by the time John gets his shoes off. "That's it. Oh yes, this is what I was talking about. Real soap!"

John watches him until Rodney looks up, realises John has yet to take off his clothes and says, "Sheppard- get under here!"

John coughs, trying to put as much warning into it as he can. He knows Rodney didn't mean it like that, or well, maybe he did, but Carson is one room down from them and, come to think of it, probably heard that.

John strips down, throws his clothes on top of Rodney's pile and gets under the spray. He tries to keep his distance, even though he's far too wiped out for fun. God, he thinks moaning as the hot water hammers down on his tired back, as he can see Rodney wet and slippery standing only a couple feet away, a cloud of steam obscuring some of what he knows is a exhilarated expression.

Where the water gathers in the drain between them it's actually grey with dirt.

After ten minutes Carson knocks on the door "Are ye about done in there?"

Rodney looks up from his third application of anti-bacterial soap and yells "No Carson! Not even a little! I have ten months of dirt stuck to me; I am never coming out of here."

John gives himself another rinse and steps towards the towels. "Come on Rodney, can't keep the man waiting."

"Well, he can wait a little more" Rodney sputters, even though he's shutting the water down. "It's not like he has anything else to do around here." And it almost feels the way he remembers, as if they are having this shower after a mission, John thinks. As if they didn't just spend ten months getting used to a completely different life.

As Rodney moves to get a pair of scrubs, they brush into each other and John reaches out to touch him on instinct, before freezing and looking at Rodney. It's not the same. He wants to trace Rodney's naked chest. He wants to get on his knees and nuzzle Rodney's stomach. And he's not used to holding back anymore.

But then Carson says firmly, "I know ye feel fine, but I do need to run some tests" and off they go.

The tests don't take longer than the usual post-mission ones, which is something John would have objected to since they've been gone so long (something everyone with the exception of Zelenka don't seem to have fully grasped yet), only they have been relatively safe. Carson asks them about the food, proximity to animals, any sicknesses, instances of almost dying. They both gloss over the details of Beast-attacks and magical healing.

Rodney's blood pressure and cholesterol levels make Carson wax lyrically about the benefits of a largely vegetarian diet for a good ten minutes, and John finds out he's gained about fourteen pounds. He blames the bread rolls.

After they mention drinking untreated water Carson forces them to take something against parasites, which makes Rodney demand that there's a scan done on him, because well, parasites, and so John is sent on his way alone.

A marine has already come by to take all his stuff to his room, so he's sent on his way to "grab something to eat" in the scrubs. Which wouldn't have been a problem, normally. Everyone on Atlantis is used to seeing the recent infirmary released make a beehive for the food, only he has to think for a second about which hallway to take to get to the mess. They all look the same.

His problem is solved when he runs into Zelenka, who is looking somewhat tired himself, but still manages to make a lot of excited noises about temporal compression. John smiles and answers his questions and lets him lead the way to the mess. Where, when they arrive, Zelenka looks around with a confused expression, seemingly wondering how he got there, before excusing himself and walking off again to go look for Rodney.

It's afternoon, so it isn't busy which is good because John takes a long time going through the "serve yourself" containers. They all look the same and he's forgotten which ones he likes and which ones taste like shoe polish. The plastic containers and tray feel strange under his fingers because he keeps on expecting to feel wooden plates and sanded down bowls.

He's making his way over back to the door when one of the marines yells to him "Hey sir, you still on for watching football tomorrow?"

He has to fight the urge to look behind him (sir?) and then tries to force a smile. "Sure!"

He's going to have to re-learn the names of his marines, he thinks somewhat panicky. Fast.



The way from the mess to his room comes back to him as he's walking it, so he's not too worried about it.

Once he walks inside though, his room looks a lot bigger than he remembers it. The floors and walls look strangely smooth and spotless. Besides the pile of his Cloister belongings in the corner, it looks neat. Militarily so. The bed is made with perfect corners, his closet, when he opens it, consists of a vast array of black t-shirts and black and green pants. It seems colourless. Even worse still, after living with Rodney's habit of throwing things wherever they would land, it looks like he doesn't really live there. Like no one does.

He gets out of the scrubs and into a real pair of boxer shorts (oh, hallelujah) and then pants and a t-shirt. The fabric stretches strangely against his skin.

Unpacking his backpack, he spreads all the damp clothes out on the floor to let them dry. He doesn't think he'll be wearing them again, but probably one of the Athosians could use some. He traces his fingers over the little patch on the knee on one of his pants. After ripping it eh, rather unfortunately, he had come home to see Rodney fixing it with a needle and thread and the explicit warning of "we're never speaking of this again." He smiles a little.



Ronon comes by to pick him up for a run early the next morning, but John's already up, shaved and showered and watching the Atlantean sun rise over the water by then. Ronon doesn't comment on the fact that he's wearing the brown linen pants.

The city is quiet beauty this early, the sound of their running feet echoing in her halls. When they break outside it's almost seamless, the air clearer but the ground, the faint trace of electricity and life underneath still the same under his new army-issue boots.

They go out far, and only stop when John is fairly sure he can not take another step. He empties his water bottle over his head.

"You've been practising," Ronon says, breathing quite hard himself, and John grins "Yeah, there uh... there was this Beast..." and he spreads his arms wide.

Forty minutes later they've arrived back in the mess and John is just at the part of "...and then it just disappears from under me...", when they bump into Rodney. An energetic looking Rodney that's balancing a cup of coffee in one hand and a pile of papers in the other, laptop tucked under his arm. John smiles at the sight and says, "Hey, I was just telling Ronon about the Beast".

Rodney's expression falls, and he looks Ronon up and down. "Bet he'd like it."

"Sounds awesome" Ronon says, and Rodney rolls his eyes.

Deciding to talk on before his courage leaves him, John says, "So eh, you want to come have breakfast with us?" and hates hearing that trace of hesitation in his voice. Hell, it's not like he's asking for a date.

But Rodney shakes his head. "Missing out on a hilarious tale I'm sure, but I actually have work to do, Colonel." And then, as he's walking away, sipping his coffee, he turns around and grins. "But the next time I'll tell him the sheep story, huh?"

And John feels the laughter bubble in his chest.



Ronon comments on it while they are slowly shuffling through the breakfast line. "What happened with the sheep? Did you eat them?"

"Nope. Well, some of them," John says. He shakes his head, "Trust me though, it's going to be funnier if he tells it."

Ronon grunts, and he looks strangely pensive. "McKay looks different."

"Yeah? What do you mean?" John says. He doesn't know whether to get the fake chocolate milk or the real, but bitter coffee. Everything tastes different now.

"I don't know. Happier," Ronon says, putting several scoops of almost eggs on his plate. "Like he just got cake."

And John spills some of the coffee, burning his hand.



Since his team is on official stand-down anyway John spends the rest of his day just walking around Atlantis.

He gives one of the almost-asparagus things he had brought to botany and some of the bread rolls to the kitchen to see whether they can recreate them, although he's afraid the secret ingredient is going to be 'love' or something.

He goes to see Elizabeth and answers her dozens of questions about Ascension and the Sanctuary to the best of his ability. Really, he should have paid more attention during the praying.

In the afternoon he goes to see Lorne and tries to be inconspicuous when asking him to see the personnel files. He stares at the pictures for a while, forcing his memory to come back. After that he goes to see the football game (and only messes someone's name up once, but then is informed he never knew it in the first place, so it's all good).

By the time he stumbles into bed though, he has a headache. And he has yet to see Rodney again.

He doesn't know how to ask, "So, are we together now? Or did we just have sex because we were locked up with a bunch of crazy Ancient-worshippers and we didn't think we'd ever get out?"

He doesn't know if he wants to hear the answer. Rodney seemed happy this morning, but why wouldn't he, they were finally back home, everything was alright again. It probably had nothing to do with running into him.



When the next day Rodney isn't at breakfast, or lunch, the question becomes more pressing. But when John brings him dinner in the lab he just seems so happy to see him and talk about all the progress he can make based on the notes from the Cloister John feels like it's a silly question to ask. Obviously, they're fine.

Only that night, he sleeps alone again. And the next.



Atlantis is a huge city, but still it's different from the Cloister in the sense that it's not that open, there's just no real getting away. Also, here he's more important. In the Cloister, he was the one to go to if they wanted water hauled, or wood chopped, but that was about it. Here, wherever he goes, people want to talk to him. Scientists ask him to come by and turn things on, his marines radio him. It gets old again fast, only he doesn't remember feeling like it was such a huge commitment before.

When Teyla stops him and says, "I was just going to meditate, maybe you would want to join me?" He says "Yes" so fast it even sort of surprises even him.

Teyla seems pleased by his answer, and when they're actually there and he sits down easily and relaxes his body, he can feel her look at him. "I've done this a lot in the Cloister," he says teasingly, his eyes already closed, his mind focusing on the calm he knows is there. "I won't fall asleep."

"I see," Teyla says, and he can hear the smile in her voice as she sits down next to him, all grace and soft controlled breaths.



On the fifth day, he comes home to find some papers and the chess board carefully placed on his floor. He steals a table from one of the spare rooms in the north tower and carries it all the way back to his room just so he can put the game on top of it.



After that, he fulfils his promise to the jumpers and starts hanging around the jumper bay more. He doesn't know if it's the months he spent imagining them, or whether it's the just the proximity to flying, but it's calming. Also, when he's there he's less likely to be interrupted because people tend to assume he's doing something important, which helps a lot.

And since he's there anyway, he asks Zelenka to teach him some basic jumper repairs.



They're working on jumper three, the one that had originally brought them to the jungle outside the portal, when John blurts out, "How is Rodney doing?"

"What do you mean?" Radek asks, his head mostly disappeared inside the jumpers controls.

John hands him a crystal. "With being back?"

"Oh, you know him, always busy busy busy, do not disturb, I am brilliant you are not." Radek places the crystal inside, and a big spark shoots from the wire "Oh kurva dr t!"

John patiently waits until the flame dies down into a small cloud of smoke, then hands him another crystal. It's crazy how much of the jumper repairs are just 'let's switch the crystals around until there are no longer sparks and/or smoke coming out of the control panels.'

Radek sighs, "Why do you want to know? Why do you not just ask him?" and he looks curious, momentarily pulling his head out of the jumper's guts and looking at John.

John feels himself flush and wow, does he hate that. He would ask, only he hasn't seen Rodney alone in almost a week. He's not sure if there's avoidance involved or if he's just that busy. "It's not important."

"He is not spending time with you?" Radek asks, proving to be more observant than John would have given him credit for.

"The team is on stand-down," John says, "It's not like he..." has to play chess with me, he thinks. Has to eat every meal with me. Only he had, once.

"But you are ah, together, no?" Radek is looking confused, and John feels a trace of panic coming on.

"What?" he knows his voice is sort of high, but eh, what? Had Rodney told him? And John thinks he must be sending through some his alarm because Radek puts the crystal down and comes to sit next to him.

"You spent a year together on a planet meditating..." Radek trails off there. "You did not...?" eerily enough, he uses the same hand gesture for 'go forth and procreate' that Rodney does and John wonders which one copied it from the other.

He takes a deep breath. He might as well be honest. "Yes, but..."

"It did not go well?" Radek is looking concerned now and John has a moment of clarity to understand that this is the kind of talk he should be, if anyone, having with Teyla. Only she probably wouldn't have been so blunt about it.

"I don't know if he wants it to go on," John admits. And deeply, deeply considers dying of humiliation.

But Radek's eyes are gleaming. Obviously, this is prime gossip material. "You spend a year together, meditating, and not once do you talk? Not once do you communicate your feelings?"

"Eh..." John says.

And Radek starts laughing. Hard.

"Well, it was really only nine months," John says, "and a bit." But that doesn't seem to help, Radek seems positively gleeful. Eventually he wipes the tears from behind his glasses. "Colonel, Rodney is madly in love with you."

"What?" John says, a tiny flutter of something warm starting in his stomach. "He said that?"

Radek gestures, "After black cloud monster, Rodney get drunk says you are the best friend he has ever had and also very pretty. After the storm, he get drunk and says he has crush on you and then throws up on my jacket. After you fly out with bomb, he get drunk and says you are stupid, but still pretty. After hive ship he is high and says he is in love. I thought... after one year..." He waves his hand again.

John feels his mouth opening and closing, but there's not really a sound forthcoming. "Oh."

Radek is looking at him, concerned, "Did you not have alcohol?"

And John feels the urge to bang his head repeatedly against the puddle jumper go straight out the window. Because yes, one awkward conversation down, but Rodney didn't just do it because they were stranded. He really wants him. Apparently for a long time already, which, wow, if he'd known.

He's on his feet before he looks back at Radek. "Eh... Well, you know..."

Radek just grins and gives him two thumbs up "Good luck!"

And off he goes.



He finds Rodney in the labs, predictably. Miko gives him a shy smile as she looks up from a piece of Ancient tech and Simpson waves from behind her computer as he steps inside.

Rodney is sitting in the middle of the chaos, behind his laptop, tapping out something. His back is a stiff line and his right hand nearly collides with three empty coffee mugs and a sandwich wrapper as he works. He's looking intently at the screen. When John steps closer he can see it's the ZPM sketches he'd done in the Sanctuary, now clean-lined and elegant.

He says, "Hi, Rodney," and Rodney turns around so quickly his chair keeps going. His hair is standing up, and he's looking just a little sleep-deprived. "Colonel! I was just adjusting the sketches I made of the..."

But John hadn't come over to talk about ZPM's. "Can I talk to you?'

"What, now?" Rodney asks, sounding a little puzzled.

John doesn't buy it. "Yes, now."

He's tempted to take Rodney's hand and haul him up just to see him stutter, but he doesn't. Rodney is getting up anyway, giving him a strange look. "Anyway, the inside of a ZPM is incredibly intricate, that much we know, but since we don't have an empty one around and it's not easy to collect data while ours is in use..."

John nods, and leads the way to his room. Either Rodney doesn't notice or he doesn't think it's anything out of the ordinary, because when John opens his door and they step inside Rodney is still talking. "So I theorised that the subspace bubble is actually conducted through... Oh, you got a table?"

John looks at the table where the chess board is set up. "Yeah, I got one, in case you..." wanted to come and play, he meant to say. Only, it sounds a little dirty in his mind.

Rodney is just standing there, looking at the chess pieces gleaming in the sunlight with a pleased expression on his face. So John puts his hand on Rodney's arm. "Look, I..."

"It's ok," Rodney says, turning to look at him. "It's yours, I made it for you. I know you're grateful and I know what you want to say..."

John kisses him. Their lips make contact kind of awkwardly because Rodney is still talking, but John says "shhh" sort of softly to the side of Rodney's mouth, and Rodney falls quiet.

It's a slow kiss, because Rodney doesn't seem to want to let it go too far, and John wants to take his time, a lot of it, so he licks the sides of Rodney's mouth, teasingly touches his tongue to Rodney's until it's lazy and desperate at the same time. They've done this too many times for it to be so new, for the nerves to be jumping around in his stomach, but they are.

They break apart softly. "Look," John says again, and he can already see Rodney is steeling himself.

"I know," Rodney says, eyes sad and sort of empty but his smile feels real when he says, "But we're still friends, right? I mean that's what's important and I... " And John wants to say "Of course!" only his stomach is doing that weird thing again and he says, "I'm in love with you."

"I... you... what?" Rodney asks, his face all confusion, and for a moment John thinks he was wrong, that it was not what he thought it was.

But then Rodney's face clears up and he's smiling. "Me too. I've... for a long time."

And John pulls him in and they're kissing again, fast kisses and almost-romantic ones, and John finds he can't stop the huge elated feeling in his chest because Rodney! In love with him! He whispers, "You should have said" and Rodney says, "Well, it's not as if I knew..." And John smiles against Rodney's mouth and is fully in the process of undressing him when Rodney points at the wall.

"You hung this up? Really?"

John looks up to the wall to see the drawing that says "John is a crazy man with gravity-defying hair" and on the bottom in Rodney's tiny, nearly unreadable handwriting, "general concept by Dr. Rodney McKay, execution by Hedda, with much love."

John blushes. "Of course. I..." and moves in to kiss Rodney again.